Review: ‘The Childhood of Jesus’, J. M. Coetzee

The Childhood of Jesus, J. M. Coetzee

The Childhood of Jesus, J. M. Coetzee

Warning: This post will involve both spoilers and some pretentious philosophizing, so if either of things tend to make you ill, reading further is not advised. 

The Childhood of Jesus
by J. M. Coetzee
Random House

Coetzee’s latest book, The Childhood of Jesus (what a tantalizing name!), came out just last week, on the 7th of March. Now the problem with reading too many dead authors is that you never have the glee and fun of looking forward to a new book, and you can seldom experience the adrenaline rush of running to the bookstore ASAP to acquire a just-released title. I’m happy to say that for the first time in many many years, I’ve now had this adrenaline rush. But what did surprise me was that this book – by a double-Booker winner, by a Nobel-winner, no less! – came out in relatively muted circumstances. No fanfare, no mass media coverage. No reviews in the NYRB or LRB or New York Times yet. I could only find reviews in British publications, and those too had to be specifically hunted down, didn’t seem to have many readers, and sometimes were downright mocking.

Maybe this is because this book could be considered, as a commenter in The Guardian put beautifully, “minor Coetzee”. I like the idea of ‘minor Coetzee’ and ‘major Coetzee’, as if his novels were symphonies of a sort, playing at different pitches of value and importance. But is it ‘minor Coetzee’? I’m not sure. It’s definitely not his ‘best’ work (both subjectively and technically speaking) – as an allegory-parable, it’s not quite Waiting for the Barbarians or Life and Times of Michael K. As a philosophical interrogation of different things… well, I still prefer Diary of a Bad Year. As ‘political commentary’ (a tricky description to apply to any Coetzee book – but there you are – stuff like Disgrace and Age of Iron are more easily, more discernibly ‘about’ South Africa than others) – nope, it’s not. At least not explicitly. But there’s no doubt that within the wider Coetzee-oeuvre, it’s an important and valuable culmination of ideas and questions that Coetzee has been steadily interrogating for the past few years. Perhaps in this sense, it’ll be of more interest to the academic world than it will to the general public. (Cough cough.)

A brief summary of the plot: A man named Símon and a young boy called David arrive in a Spanish-speaking town called Novilla (armed with nothing more than a rudimentary beginner’s Spanish, which nonetheless seems good enough to conduct lengthy philosophical discussions in!), after having spent some time being processed in a ‘camp’. Símon is emphatically not David’s father, and they are looking for his “real” mother (Símon is sure that he’ll ‘know her when he sees her’, intuitively, despite the fact that her name is not known to him or the boy, and despite the fact that neither of them knows what she actually looks like). They settle down into their life in the weird Novilla – a place and whose people Símon finds deeply unfulfilling, sexually and otherwise. “Complacent” might be a good word to describe this town and the people in it; “apathetic” might be another (though ever-so-slightly off the mark, I guess). Nobody desires anything, and life just goes on. Various encounters later, Símon and David meet a lady playing tennis with her two brothers, and (surrealism ahoy!) Símon is sure that he has seen David’s mother. “Will you take him as your son?” he asks Inés. Not adoption; no, as her ‘real’ child. Bizarre though the request is, she accepts. The rest of the novel details their interactions – David, Inés, and Símon’s – and the development of the child. He’s a rather naughty one, and gets into trouble at school; when they try and place in his a school for “special” children, Punto Arenas, David runs away after a short while and the over-protective (?) Inés decides she would rather run away from Novilla, and start a ‘new life’, than risk having her son taken away by the authorities again. So Inés, Símon, and David escape in a car to a ‘new life’. This is more or less how the novel ends.

Not that anybody could – or should – go into a Coetzee novel expecting easy hand-outs in the sense of narrative or thematic resolution, but even with that in mind this book is extremely reserved and guarded about what it is trying to say, or show, or mean. It’s called The Childhood of Jesus, alright, but it defies even an attempt to read it as any sort of straightforward allegory about the origins of Christianity. (Although I can’t discount the possibility that Coetzee is implying, with his tongue firmly in cheek and a twinkle in his famously-untwinkling eyes, that Jesus was perhaps nothing more than petulant little boy who refused to adhere to the established systems around him!). The title definitely exists outside the world of the novel, which makes it all the more fascinating – because, of course, when you pick up a book called The Childhood of Jesus, you somehow keep trying to read the narrative that follows in light of that external knowledge (“This is about Jesus, somehow!”). And with more than a little mischief, Coetzee deflects (or at the very least, thoroughly complicates) all attempts to do so.

Both David and Símon are hugely interesting – and difficult, always! – characters. Símon is a man of needs and desires, constantly yearning for the something more of life, whether it be in his sexual relations or in the work that he does (stevedoring – carrying bags of grain off cargo ships) – I think it’s a feeling we can all probably empathize with. Can’t there be something more meaningful, more relevant for me to be doing than this? But this persistent yearning after some sort of feeling, or sensation, or meaning-to-life that Símon can neither name nor articulate coherently is at odds with the way of life and the way of thinking people have in Novilla. As Elena (a secondary character) firmly tells Símon one day, “This endless dissatisfaction, this yearning for the something-more that is missing, is a way of thinking we are well rid of, in my opinion. Nothing is missing.” I don’t quite know enough philosophy to understand precisely what this exemplifies, but no doubt there is an interrogation of Platonism here – Novilla might very well be Plato’s cave, as all aspects of life there seem to strike Símon as nothing more than (unsatisfactory) shadows on the wall. (David later watches a TV show about Mickey Mouse and Plato, which sounds like a damned fine show…) Símon is constantly reaching for something beyond the image; the real, one might almost say, just like he tries to reach David’s ‘real’ mother. (Weirdly, her ‘realness’ as David’s mother ultimately doesn’t matter; in performance she is accepted. I wonder what Coetzee means by that?)

A happy confluence: sometimes you’re reading about something else, but what you find there is illuminating and deeply pertinent to something entirely unrelated. When I was reading about screwball comedies, I came across this from the philosopher Stanley Cavell, and it seems to sum up the distinction between Símon and the rest of the Novillans pretty perfectly (next blogpost, or, alternatively, a PhD. thesis: On the intricate relationship between the works of J. M. Coetzee and 1930s romantic comedy films. You heard it here first!):

Put otherwise, the achievement of human happiness requires not the perennial and fuller satisfaction of our needs as they stand but the examination and transformation of those needs.

If Símon belongs to former camp (those who believe that happiness/fulfillment lies in a somehow-deeper satisfaction of needs and desires), then Elena and Álvaro belong to the latter camp (it’s not that needs need satisfaction, but rather that your understanding of those needs requires transforming – needs are not everything, they’re not even anything). There is only what is, and to yearn after the what-isn’t – the ineffable realm of ideas and something-more – is futile and rather strange to Novillans. At the free education Institute in Novilla, people are again concerned only with the philosophical questions of the real and the qualities that make ’em – the chairness of chairs, and the pooness of poo (an exchange in which Símon is unclogging the toilet in Inés & David’s apartment throws up lines like “Toilets are just toilets, but poo is not just poo…There are certain things that are not just themselves, not all the time. Poo is one of them.”) (As some reviewers have pointed out, this book is surprisingly – and weirdly – humorous. Not in any conventional sense, but certainly in some sort of bizarre, muted, ironic sense.)

But then it’s difficult to pinpoint Símon as an idealist, too – because when David decides to live in his own world, literally rejecting the systems of rationalization (mathematics) and communication (language) that make up ‘reality’, Símon is not impressed. “Because that is the way the world is,” becomes an almost-constant refrain in his lectures to David. To me this almost seems slightly at odds with Símon’s earlier insistence on the something more, and his didacticism towards David echoes that which he himself earlier received. In David, Coetzee’s recent preoccupation with systems of rationality and communication as arbitrary (? – or at the very least, artificial systems of imposition) comes to the fore. Two exchanges between Símon and David:

“I know all the numbers. Do you want to hear them? I know 134 and I know 7 and I know” – he draws a deep breath – “4623551 and I know 888 and I know 92 and I know -“

“Stop! That’s not knowing the numbers, David. Knowing the numbers means being able to count. It means knowing the order of the numbers – which numbers come before and which come after….”

* * *

“…You can look at the page and move your lips and make up stories in your head, but that is not reading. For real reading you have to submit to what is written on the page. You have to give up your fantasies. You have to stop being silly.”

Símon propounds an almost-fatalistic adherence to the way things are (bizarrely: isn’t that Elena and Álvaro were trying to tell him earlier?), and this embodies the education system that David soon enters, too. These exchanges between David and Símon reminded me of one of my favourite parts from my favourite Coetzee book, Diary of a Bad Year. It’s one of the essays that the mysterious Señor C of the novel writes, “18. On Zeno”, which begins with a description of how we can teach children to count (relevant!). More generally, it is a meditation on the nature of numbers, and the writer of the essay makes particular reference to a little philosophical fable by Jorge Luis Borges,

…about a man to whom the counting rule, and indeed the even more fundamental rules that allow us to encompass the world in language, are simply alien.

Borges’ kabbalistic, Kantian fable brings it home to us that the order we see in the universe may not reside in the universe at all, but in the paradigms of thought we bring to it. The mathematics which we have invented (in some accounts) or discovered (in others), which we believe or hope to be a key to the structure of the universe, may well equally be a private language – private to human beings with human brains – in which we doodle on the walls of our cave.

I do not know that Coetzee ever resolved (or resolves) – either in Diary of a Bad Year or in The Childhood of Jesus – this question that is posed first by Señor C, and then exemplified in the battle, almost, between Símon (and almost all of Novilla) and David. Is this order, the purest form of which is manifested in mathematics, something invented (and therefore artificial, arbitrary) or discovered (and therefore inherent)? Does it matter, if either way we’re going to have to live with it “because that is the way the world is”? Who is right (if anyone), David or Símon? Are they even really at odds? And what does this have to do with Jesus, really? My favourite review of the book, in the New Statesman, links these questions further to Elizabeth Costello, and Elizabeth Costello’s brief digression (?) on Srinivasa Ramanujan, “widely thought of as one of the greatest intuitive mathematicians of our time” (in Costello’s words). It’s worth reading that review to get a clearer sense of how Costello’s brief digression on Ramanujan could be linked to The Childhood of Jesus, and further, how it perhaps functions along with it as a questioning of rationality and reason as the be-all and end-all. As indeed it often seems to be….

Snippet from 'Diary of a Bad Year' - quoting from Borges.

Snippet from ‘Diary of a Bad Year’ – quoting from Borges.

There are probably a million more things that could be said about The Childhood of Jesus than I have traced out here, but I didn’t really want to write an(other) essay on it (ha! Not so sure I succeeded, though!). Either way, I enjoyed it, even if I didn’t really understand it – but then, I don’t think there’s any Coetzee novel or essay I can say I’ve properly understood, so that’s nothing new. The plot is sparse, and it’s all the more to its credit then that it still manages to be extremely interesting. The way the characters speak is a little stilted and artificial – inevitable, I suppose, when almost every conversation seems to have some philosophical underpinning – and some reviewers have pointed this out critically, but I don’t think it matters. Nobody reads Coetzee for realism/naturalism, of dialect or otherwise, and as such, these criticisms are largely immaterial. More than it is a novel of technical brilliance, this is a novel of ideas (Símon would be pleased), and although it’s Coetzee’s first allegorical(ish)/parable-esque narrative in a long time (his most recent works have been things like Diary of a Bad Year, Slow Man, Elizabeth Costello – none of which are quite like some of his earlier works, Waiting for the Barbarians and Life and TImes of Michael K.), I do believe it’s an explicit continuation of issues Coetzee has interrogated, briefly or otherwise, in his recent works. It’ll be extremely interesting to revisit works like Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year properly and delineate exactly what preoccupations Coetzee carries forth with him into this book – equally, I think its best qualities are probably going to be lost on people who don’t look at it within this context of oeuvre.

It’s a good book. Not his best (whichever rubric you use to determine the ‘best’), but a good one. Coetzee devotees will enjoy it, though I’m not sure about others; it might strike some people as a bit stuffy. I’m going to be scratching my head over it for a while, and I’m sure others will too. I hope it gets more coverage than it has done so far, because the silence that seems to surround it is both unwarranted and surprising.

  1. tocksin said:

    i have not even read the post and i am excited by the prospects of delving into Coetzee whom i would like to make an attempt to contact.

    • Oh you should! (And if you are successful, let me know, because I might have to learn your secrets then.) A new book of his letters to Paul Auster & vice versa just came out too… his letters sound almost as interesting/beautiful as his books!

      • tocksin said:

        It’s just a pipe dream much like the idea I would have loved to have dropped in on Henry miller at big sur; after I read your review I will drop in again.

        • Thank you for dropping by! :) I hope you enjoyed the review. Have you read the book yet? What did you think of it?

          • tocksin said:

            No, but i am reading The Master of Petersburg and liked very much waiting for the barbarians plus Disgrace. And presently, I am following the Oscar Pistorius case and the background of south African violence that say was the root of it.

  2. Honestly, as a member of the ‘general public’ and not the ‘academic world’, I believe all the stuff about numbers was merely there so that Coetzee could have the ‘Trinity’ discussion – one is not three, or is it? – towards the end. Either too subtle or too unsubtle, depending I suppose on the reader’s ability or desire to make up her own interpretation. This reader likes to think the author, at least, knows what the book is about, and I felt strongly that Coetzee didn’t – and that he may now be reading the reviews and thinking ‘Aha! So that’s what I was saying.’….and perhaps chuckling.

    I got considerably more out of reading your very interesting review than I did from the book! :-)

    • Ah! Sorry if that sounded patronising, I didn’t mean for it to – I only meant that the book & potential themes in it fit in quite well with the current preoccupations of Coetzee scholars. They’re positively choking on poststructuralism & Derrida there now, and this book will keep ’em at it for a few years yet. Hehe!

      I didn’t notice the connection between the Trinity question and the one =? three bit at all, thanks for pointing it out! Though to be honest, I found it so hard to read the book within any sort of Christian rubric that I just sort of gave up on trying to link the two.

      Ha! Somehow, you know, I get that feeling with almost all his books. Chuckling to himself somewhere beyond reach, maddeningly, and we’ll never know whether we made it up or whether he did or whether he intended for us to make it up etc….

      Thank you for reading my review! I enjoyed yours hugely too; it was really interesting to read a disappointed review, albeit one that wasn’t snarky or rude or horrible like some of the newspaper ones I saw.

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