J.M. Coetzee’s new novel is a return to form. More than that: it may be his most brisk and dazzling book. Opening in the key of Kafka, the novel creeps into a nail-biting drama of parenthood and ends in a swirl of explicitly illogical metaphysical defiance.
Coetzee’s title, The Childhood of Jesus, will seem like a provocation. No character is named Jesus. But at the novel’s start a man named Simón and a boy named David have arrived in a new town and are looking for David’s mother. He doesn’t remember her. But they will know her when they see her, Simón feels sure. And when they do, lo and behold, she turns out to be a virgin.
Coetzee being Coetzee, he keeps these plotlines at arm’s length. On their first night in town, Simón and David improvise a lean-to of corrugated iron. They live on bread and margarine. Simón takes work at the docks and, after a backbreaking shift, goes back to the resettlement office, where he finally secures a room for himself and his 5-year-old ward. They dine on two cubes of sugar.
This is the life of bare survival that Coetzee’s work has championed since Life and Times of Michael K. It is the property-less, humiliated life that Lucy Lurie embraces in Disgrace: “To start at ground level. With nothing ... like a dog.”
But Jesus is not such a political book as those. In fact—and this is the source of the book’s buoyancy—Simón and David have arrived not in Coetzee’s South Africa, nor his Australia, nor the universalized imperial city of Waiting for the Barbarians, but in a kind of heaven.
It is an afterlife, not with clouds and harps, but a dusty seaport with streets and buildings where the people are just a little too nice, too detached, too simple. And Simón doesn’t fit in. He makes friends, but they worry that he too much “suffers from memories.” They tell him also that sex is “a strange thing to be preoccupied with.” His diet of bread and margarine gets varied, but only with bean paste. He wants spices. He wants irony. He wants meat.
By trading the regime of apartheid for the regime of heaven, has Coetzee somehow changed the valence of his fiction? Has the author of The Lives of Animals changed his spots? If Simón is not going to be punished for his desires, as David Lurie was in Disgrace, should this novel then be called Grace?
The force of the narrative that follows sweeps away such questions. In a riveting standoff worthy of The Turn of the Screw, Simón sees through a fence the woman he quixotically decides is David’s mother. Her name is Ines. He talks his way into the mysteriously posh mansion where she lives and, through a series of interviews, convinces her to adopt David as her son. Then Simón absents himself.
A wholly laudable father figure—one whose gruff, watchful care recalls Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—abandons his son to a total stranger, a woman who without being malevolent nonetheless fills the reader with the deepest unease. We see Ines hitch up her skirt and straddle the boy, tickling his stomach in a game called “Where is the spider?” We see the boy’s manly suit of woolens replaced with frilled shirts and buckled shoes. We hear from neighbors that the boy has snubbed his former playmates. He rides about in a stroller now and sucks his thumb.
A boy who—according to the book’s title and clues in the text—has the potential to be Jesus is being spoiled rotten. The banality of the situation is itself staggeringly suspenseful. Ines finally lets Simón visit in order to fix the toilet. David/Jesus insists on watching. “ ‘It’s my poo,’ he says, ‘I want to stay!’ ” Simón tries to teach David to read using Don Quixote, but David, who considers himself an ally of all things magical and heroic, gets angry at his father for siding with Sancho Panza—for claiming that the windmills are really windmills. And Simón, who has renounced any legal rights of guardianship, is helpless when Ines lets David consort with the sinister Señor Daga, a tempter who gives David nips of alcohol and lets him watch Mickey Mouse. “Señor Daga gives me presents. You and Ines never give me presents.” Simón can only reply, feebly, that Daga does not have the boy’s best interests at heart.
“What are my best interests?”
“Your first interest is to grow up to be a good man ... Like Don Quixote. Don Quixote rescued maidens. He protected the poor from the rich and powerful. Take him as your model, not Señor Daga.”
Young David’s retort is heartbreakingly easy: “Señor Daga says Don Quixote is old-fashioned. He says no one rides a horse anymore.”
Lost children have haunted Coetzee’s fiction for a long time. The rather dry novel Foe comes to life when a little girl shows up, claiming to be the heroine’s long-lost daughter. Age of Iron is a letter to an absent daughter. The Master of Petersburg follows a father investigating his stepson’s death. Slow Man, which at first reads like an exquisitely pale Philip Roth novel, goes nicely off the rails when its protagonist begins to covet his nurse’s son. Disgrace pits father against daughter, and it has been widely remarked that Lurie’s final gesture, carrying a sick dog like a lamb to the incinerator, puts heavy Christian symbolism on his daughter’s self-sacrifice.
But setting the story in heaven makes a key difference. Here, no absolution is necessary. Not only do we not have the snarled white man’s guilt of South Africa, we don’t even have original sin. The sacrifice of the martyr would mean nothing—and indeed, this book sees a 6-year-old David gathering disciples, at novel’s end, and goes no further.
Hence the book’s gripping verve. By getting eschatology out of the way, putting us in heaven already, Coetzee can game out what would happen to a child with Christ-like gifts in a world without God. It becomes a passion of modern parenting.
Toward the end, Simón sides with Ines; he begins to spoil David himself. He sides with David against his schoolteachers. Perhaps David is a mathematical genius, and 2 + 2 = 5. Asked to pledge to tell the truth, David instead writes on the blackboard “I am the truth.” Why should David listen to his teachers “when a voice inside him says the teacher’s way is not the true way?” One of Simón’s friends accuses him of schoolboy philosophizing—as in “What if the mad are really sane and the sane are really mad?” But Simón, in siding with David/Jesus, has turned his back on Western philosophy.
Way back in Age of Iron, Coetzee had a protagonist complain about the art of getting children to say what you want them to say—“Ventriloquism, the legacy of Socrates, as oppressive in Africa as it was in Athens.” In The Childhood of Jesus, Simón goes to heavenly night school, sits in on a metaphysics class. He finds he doesn’t care about the chairness of chairs. “What kind of philosophy would you like instead?” asks his friend. “The kind that shakes one,” answers Simón, “that changes one’s life ... I wish someone, some savior, would descend from the skies and wave a magic wand and say, Behold, read this book and all your questions will be answered.”