No third Booker here

J.M. Coetzee - Childhood of Jesus

The Childhood of Jesus, J.M Coetzee, 2013, Random House (Kindle Edition)

Released in March this year, I was surprised to find that the latest Coetzee offering only crossed my desk two weeks ago. Usually you would expect a significant hype to surround the release of a new novel by the famously reserved yet revered author. The seeming lack of publicity does not seem to have hampered numerous reviewers from singing the novel's praises however, with one suggesting candidly that The Childhood of Jesus could be a “contender for an unprecedented third Booker Prize”.i

The story concerns itself with the plight of a middle aged man named Simón and his accidental charge, a young child named David. After meeting serendipitously on a ship travelling from an undisclosed location, the two arrive in Spain and make their way through a refugee camp to a town called Novilla, where they begin to build a new life for themselves. Simón finds back-breaking work as a stevedore (a dock worker who unloads cargo in lieu of a crane or other mechanical substitute) at a nearby wharf, and begins the search for David’s “mother”.

We learn early on that David’s mother has either died, abandoned him, or never existed, but Simón claims he will “know the boy’s mother when (he) saw her”. It is made abundantly clear on a number of occasions that David also does not have a father – one of the first and most obvious allusions to the Christian narrative. Simón eventually settles on a wealthy inhabitant of nearby La Residencia named Inés to serve in the maternal role and David begins his life with a new family. The child proves himself to be of exceptional intelligence – although rebellious and subversive – with many of the novel’s major episodes arising out of David’s curious nature and natural predisposition toward insubordination.

The majority of the novel consists not of plot, but rather dialogue, often concerned with vague and sometimes juvenile philosophical concerns. Such a premise – a novel dealing almost exclusively in philosophy – may seem appealing to many readers, the expectation being for an engaging read. But unfortunately, the delivery completely discounts any claims the novel might make to being philosophically interesting.

The novel’s prose strikes the reader as somewhat bland and the philosophical epithets upon which much of the dialogue relies would fall in the category you might call “pop philosophy”. There appear within the narrative, usually in the context of a discussion between Simón and the young David, these kinds of philosophical sound bites which often, upon further inspection, reveal themselves as inherently meaningless statements. For example, on the subject of change in David’s life, Simón states: “The waters of the ocean flow and in flowing they change. You cannot step twice into the same waters. As the fish live in the sea, so we live in time and must change with time.” The inherent urge of the statement here – we must adapt to change over time – is clear and completely sane and acceptable, but it is the way in which it is couched in this kind of airy and insubstantial metaphor, often as a way of “beefing-up” its own validity if you will, that leaves the reader disgruntled. The novel is thoroughly peppered with these kinds of tediously bland statements.

In terms of overall narrative structure, the third person present tense is the prevailing mode, and as a result, the author necessarily must include constant reminders of who is saying what, resulting in clumsy sentence construction and a lack of interesting detail. The pages are taken up by sentences describing in simple terms things like the movement of characters through space. Arguably this is a necessary element of any narrative, but at times, these read like obstacles that must be overcome in pursuit of the good bits of the novel. Such simple sentences as “the boy shakes his head” or “they hurry” may seem innocuous, but when such simplicity is continually reproduced and never made even slightly more interesting, the prose quickly becomes stagnant and distracts from the content. Such a clumsy style of prose is arguably deliberate, as most of the dialogue presumably takes place in Spanish but is written in English. However, it isn’t the “translated” dialogue which is as problematic as the surrounding narrative details which are taken as being English to begin with.

The novel’s content, as I mentioned earlier, is largely philosophical discussion and debate at something of a juvenile level. Naturally, as a fair chunk of the text consists of conversations between a man and a six year old, a certain amount of explanation of basic concepts is forgivable; but far from being cute, as a curious child may be, young David is rather annoying and reading his arguments with the adults in his life is a tedious exercise. Add to that the fact that it is delivered in an overly metaphorical prose style, and we are left with conversations composed of a series of weak philosophical sound bites which are of no actual use to the reader or the characters. An example of the novel's strange system of logic might be found in the following quote: “Nothing is missing. The nothing that you think is missing is an illusion. You are living by an illusion.” These continuous simplistic explanations combined with a bland and simple prose suggest a condescending attitude toward the reader, and do very little to further plot or character, or to reach any compelling conclusions.

As the title suggests, the novel offers an allegory of the childhood years of Jesus Christ. The most notable connections are David’s pilgrimage to Novilla, mirroring the escape to Nazareth; his lack of a father, which parallels the virgin birth of Christ; and finally David’s apparently exceptional intuition. Young David is a gifted child, but far from providing any form of redemption or spiritual insight to anyone, he instead appears as a continuous source of irritation and burden, wreaking havoc on the lives of those who surround him. As the child grows older, he does seem to gain more significant “spiritual” importance to his adult counterparts, particularly the very minor character of Juan, a hitchhiker who appears in the third to last chapter, but this does little to redeem him as we have had to withstand his mischief for so long.

In this sense, the character of David satirises the accepted story of Jesus’ youth, a story which is poorly documented in the Gospels, which cover Christ’s birth and then the ministry years which begin in his early thirties. There is mention that Christ was an exceptional child, confounding the much more learned priests at the Temple, but aside from that an author dealing with this subject would have little to work with. Coetzee’s novel thus offers us a whole new fictional allegorical account of what a child possessing the characteristics of Jesus might have been like – and in this case, he is a nuisance. Is this then a critique of a young Jesus and a slight on Christianity? That much is difficult to substantiate, as the novel ends much like it begins, with the child David very little changed by Simón’s philosophical guidance and his future prospects equally grim.

Perhaps the most overt allegory is that of the spiritual “pilgrimage”, textually embodied in David and Simón’s arrival from an unknown past in order to begin life anew – a goal they seem to share with many others in the town. This element of the plot seems to parallel in some ways the concept of Christian salvation and spiritual development with the implication that repentance and the acceptance of Christ means a fresh start, and the journey to spiritual enlightenment is a slow and difficult one culminating in death and resurrection in the new life. In the case of The Childhood of Jesus however, far from finding their enlightenment, the protagonists become disillusioned with the offerings of Novilla leading to their flight to hopefully greener pastures. One gets the acute sense, however, that the story is very likely to repeat itself, as there is no resolution after life in Novilla, and no real hope of anywhere else being any better. This particular allegorical element provides a more overt critique of Christian ideals with the novel’s conclusion of failure for David and his family, and the suggestion that the cycle will inevitably repeat itself.

Overall, this Biblical parallel is for me the novel’s only possible redeeming characteristic. It functions as a fairly accurate critique of the current state of Christian ideology and its demise in modern society. Unfortunately, the delivery of this critique leaves much to be desired and is let down significantly by the uninteresting prose through which it is delivered. One feels that, on the basis of Coetzee’s earlier work, which provides ample evidence for his skill in crafting an engaging narrative through interesting and novel techniques (I’m thinking particularly of Diary of a Bad Year here), The Childhood of Jesus is something of a disappointment technically, and as a result the underlying thrust of the novel is obscured by a difficult and bland reading experience.

No discussion of a work by such a revered author would be complete without consideration of his place in the South African literary canon. A topic of some sensitivity for many, Coetzee’s place in the South African imagination has come under greater scrutiny in recent times with many young readers treating his work with greater scepticism than their predecessors may have. A sense of disillusionment with what was previously considered a remarkable body of work is not uncommon among many of my peers, who often cite Coetzee's refusal to face South Africa’s apartheid and post-apartheid conditions of inequality head-on.

While works such as the award-winning Disgrace will always remain standards on the South African reader’s bookshelf – and rightfully so – The Childhood of Jesus appears to fall short of these standards. While it will be (and has been) valorised as yet another work of genius by the great author, I feel pause must be taken to consider at what point novels like The Childhood of Jesus and life in South Africa intersect, if at all, and whether or not Coetzee’s place as high priest of SA literature is a place he should still hold. It seems at times that Coetzee’s position as “master” leaves little room for clear and concise criticism of his work, with many reviewers resorting immediately to singing the novel’s praises without offering substantial evidence. Far from being an expert on the topic myself, I can’t help but feel let down by the author and his new book and I can’t help but imagine that these feelings are not unique to me.

i      Benjamin Markovits, The Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee – review, The Guardian, 2 March 2013

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