THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS by J.M. Coetzee (2013)

jesusThis is an odd and frustrating novel.

Calling a book The Childhood of Jesus and then not referring once to Jesus by name is perverse to say the least. On top of this we never learn when and where the story takes place. The protagonists speak Spanish but it’s not their mother tongue (neither is it English).

David is a child with no known natural parents but he doesn’t behave like the son of God. His strangeness and learning difficulties could be due to the fact that he is dyslexic, retarded or too gifted to connect with fellow mortals. The latter would be more in keeping with a religious angle but it’s hard to see that this is Coetzee’s sole motive for writing the novel.

There are numerous Christian illusions yet these never really seem fundamental to the plot. At the beginning the new arrivals in the town are looking for a place to stay (room at the inn) but what follows is far removed from any biblical narrative. A man named Simón takes it upon himself to act as the boy’s guardian and resolves to find his mother even though he knows nothing about her. He chooses a woman to fulfill this role based on instinct alone.

Of course, as a prestigious Nobel Prize winner, critics are right to assume that there is a richly symbolic allegory behind all the curious twists of the surreal storyline. Had Coetzee not been so widely celebrated for his previous eleven novels, I doubt they would have been quite as willing or patient enough to seek deeper meanings.

I suspect Coetzee may actually be getting a kick out of teasing his readers here. As with his other works, it is written in the language which is so simple and precisely crafted that it is as if he wants to remain as emotionally detached as possible. In this novel, this leads you to assume that he is more interested in wider issues surrounding families, work, sex and what it means to feel a sense of belonging.

in the process, he deliberately makes it hard to draw convincing analogies between what actually takes place and any deeper philosophical concepts. In an interview for The Monthly, philosopher Raimond Gaita even argues against “pressing for coherence” and let the mystery be. In other words he advocates the kind of blind faith that makes religions so all pervasive. Maybe this is all part of Coetzee cunning plan!

For my part, I was left me with the feeling that I had been lured into a dead end by an intellectual shaggy dog story.