J.M. Coetzee is no stranger to the art of reinterpreting famous works of literature. His 1986 novel FOE is a reimagining of ROBINSON CRUSOE. Now, with THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS, Coetzee has attempted a reinterpretation that is more daring than its predecessor. But as literature and film have seen so many riffs on the Bible, from Nikos Kazantzakis’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, it’s hard to envision anyone other than an extremist becoming angry at this thoughtful, playful and ultimately perplexing allegory.
A man named Simón and a five-year-old boy named David sail to the Spanish-speaking town of Novilla from Belstar, where they spent six weeks living in a tent in the desert. Like everyone else in Novilla, they are forging a new identity, with no clear recollection of where they came from. Simón and David are not related, but the older man has agreed to look after the boy. When they began their voyage, the boy was carrying a note that identified his mother, for whom he is searching. But the letter somehow got lost, so when they arrive at the town’s Relocation Centre, they don’t know whom to ask for or where to go.
"Coetzee’s rare narrative gift, in all of its clipped chilliness, is on full display. The story progresses beautifully, and, if you’re at all like me, you’ll find yourself savoring the artistry and the storytelling brio, even as you’re wondering what it’s all supposed to mean."
A middle-aged clerk at the Centre gives Simón a vale de trabajo (labor voucher) to help him find work at the docks. Simón gets a job as a stevedore, where he and the other human beasts of burden haul sacks of grain onto outgoing ships. After they have lived in Novilla for a while, Simón and David take a bus out to a lake one day and find a decaying mansion called La Residencia. There they see a young woman playing tennis. Her name is Inés, and she’s dressed all in white. Simón is convinced that this woman is David’s mother. When he explains their situation to Inés and asks if she would consider becoming the boy’s mother, she is at first flummoxed by the odd request and storms off. But she later visits Simón and David, takes an instant liking to the boy, and agrees.
Jesus is never mentioned in the novel, but Coetzee draws many parallels with stories and characters from the gospels. Through one of David’s young friends, Simón meets an unmarried woman named Elena, with whom Simón has the latest in a long line of passionless sexual relationships in Coetzee’s fiction. David’s teachers want to send him to a boarding school when he tells unbelievable tales about invisible volcanoes and his ability to make people disappear. To prove that it isn’t human nature to fight in self-defense, David doesn’t flinch when Simón raises a hand as if to strike him.
Two-thirds into the book, Simón helps to teach David to read by sharing aloud passages from DON QUIXOTE. Coetzee is hardly the first person to have noticed the similarities between the gospels and Cervantes’s masterpiece, from Quixote’s fantastical claims about the Cave of Montesinos, with Sancho Panza playing the role of doubting Thomas, to the bedpan headgear that is a screwball variation on the crown of thorns. The book’s inclusion here suggests that THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS is, like DON QUIXOTE, intended as a parody. Or maybe it’s a commentary on the follies of austerity and of delusions of grandeur in our austere moment of world history.
This seems to me the biggest problem with THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS. Some have complained about the book’s philosophical digressions. Actually, this dialogue-heavy book has less philosophy in it than some reviewers have claimed. But by cramming literary allusions and philosophical exchanges on many different topics --- perhaps we’re meant to read them as parables --- into such a short novel, Coetzee never gives us a clear sense of what he is trying to say.
This criticism may have more to do with expectations of Coetzee than the requirements of literature, as his many powerful novels have said so much that is vital and profound. THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS is, to me, Coetzee with his shoes off and his feet up, having fun with the challenge of setting a classic text to a modern tune. That the novel misses the target of profundity doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining. Coetzee’s rare narrative gift, in all of its clipped chilliness, is on full display. The story progresses beautifully, and, if you’re at all like me, you’ll find yourself savoring the artistry and the storytelling brio, even as you’re wondering what it’s all supposed to mean.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on September 13, 2013