J.M. COETZEE’S The Childhood of Jesus is strange — stranger than any reader could wish or anticipate, even given the difficulty of all his work up to this point. It’s a compelling and confounding work of political philosophy wrapped in a less compelling, even seemingly intentionally flat, work of fiction, one that falls somewhere between episodic and plotless. The strongest sensation one has while reading is puzzlement, the sense that the story is a cipher whose key has been lost; the book’s reviews have tended to become lists of the questions it leaves unanswered. To begin with, it conspicuously fails to explain its title: there is no character in the story named Jesus, and although it sometimes faintly echoes the infancy narratives of Christ, interpreting The Childhood of Jesus as a distant and obfuscated Christian allegory doesn’t help with many of the puzzles it presents. And it sets up many other expectations, as well, only to frustrate them: the expectations of psychological depth and descriptive realism, for example, or the promise of forward narrative motion.
Then again, Coetzee’s work has never been mistaken for easy reading. Even his earliest novels brought readers into truly painful ethical dilemmas, showcasing a variety of characters’ struggles against the demands of their own consciences as they responded to political situations in both historical and contemporary settings. His more recent work has pushed outward the boundaries of fiction, blurring the line between author and characters with a proliferation of semiautobiographical “fictioneering.” Extending the pattern of his lesson-stories in Elizabeth Costello, these recent fictions have brought us the writings and lives of a collection of C’s and JC’s and “Coetzees,” aging writers who share Coetzee’s uncompromising ethics and even some of his career, though the facts of their fictional lives never entirely match the facts of his factual one.
The cover of the earlier UK edition of The Childhood of Jesus describes it only as “fiction,” not as a novel. The unspecific label is almost certainly deliberate, since all Coetzee’s recent semiautobiographical fictions have been tagged similarly; and in a much-discussed recent blurb, Coetzee wrote that he is “sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings.” Evidently both the conventional novel’s promise of a realistic world and psychology and, perhaps even more importantly, its promise of a plot that coheres and concludes satisfyingly are no longer Coetzee’s style. Still, The Childhood of Jesus is a very different sort of fiction from Diary of a Bad Year or Summertime, each of which presents a fictionalized autobiography, set within a recognizable and realistic world, albeit in an unconventional fictional form.
The outline of The Childhood of Jesus’s plot is easy enough to summarize, despite the multiplying questions it raises, and knowing it in advance spoils nothing important. An older man, Simón, and a boy, David, have moved across Lethean waters to a new land, a place called Novilla, in order to start a new life. It may or may not be the afterlife; the boy and the man have been “washed clean” of all their memories, given these new names, and taught the rudiments of Spanish, the land’s language, at a refugee camp. David was separated from his parents on the journey, and remembers nothing of them, but Simón feels it important to seek out the boy’s mother, whom he is sure David will recognize by instinct or impulse even without any memory. Though they settle into an apartment, and Simón finds a job as a stevedore at the docks without trouble, both continue to have trouble fitting into the world of Novilla. Simón is bothered by the difficulty of fulfilling his urges, sexual and dietary, and by the complacent sleepiness of those around him; he undertakes a serious of rebellious dialogues with the people of Novilla. They find Inés, a woman whom they deem David’s mother, but the boy eventually rebels against his schoolteachers. Finally, under the threat of David’s removal to a “special” school, the little family sets out once again to seek another new life elsewhere.
Not fitting in, then, is the main concern of the story: Simón and David are a pair of almost involuntary nonconformists in a world that may be utopia or dystopia, but either way is changeless, entirely without history. The bulk of the story is taken up not with psychology or plot, but with Simón’s dialogues with the Novillans. These are a series of frustrating encounters, riddled by mutual misunderstanding, perhaps Socratic in form but not in outcome; the dialogues cover subjects from money and work to food to sex to the nature of tables and chairs. Neither Simón’s nor the Novillans’ positions are easy to summarize thoroughly, but in general Novilla’s politics are governed by a generalized rational goodwill and a sense of the good enough, where Simón holds to a stubborn, almost irrational individualism and idealism.
The contrast between the sturdy, rational, collective dignity of the other Novillan dockworkers (whose lunchtimes are “given over to philosophical disputation”) and Simón’s individualist investment in the freedom afforded by efficiency and progress is sometimes enough to give the book the air of a quite dated antisocialist tract:
“Is this all we ever unload — wheat?” he asks Álvaro on another occasion.
“Wheat and rye,” replies Álvaro.
“But is this all we unload through the docks: grain?”
“It depends on what you mean by we. Wharf Two is for grain cargoes. If you worked on Wharf Seven you would be unloading mixed cargoes. If you worked on Wharf Nine you would be unloading steel and cement. Haven’t you been around the docks? Haven’t you explored?”
“I have. But the other wharves have always been empty. As they are now.”
“Well, that makes sense, doesn’t it? You don’t need a new bicycle every day. You don’t need new shoes every day, or new clothes. But you do have to eat every day. So we need lots of grain.”
“Therefore if I were to transfer to Wharf Seven or Wharf Nine I would have an easier time. I could take whole weeks off work.”
“Correct. If you worked on Seven or Nine you would have an easier time. But you would also not have a full-time job. So, on the whole, you are better off on Two.”
“I see. So it is for the best, after all, that I am here, on this wharf, in this port, in this city, in this land. All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”
Álvaro frowns. “This isn’t a possible world,” he says. “It is the only world. Whether that makes it the best is not for you or for me to decide.”
He can think of several replies, but refrains from airing them. Perhaps, in this world that is the only world, it would be prudent to put irony behind him.
This is dry stuff — even the humor, which is far more frequently present than in Coetzee’s other work, doesn’t quite leaven the fact that these exchanges read more like a fractured, Beckettian revision of Plato than like a conventional novel’s dialogue. But it’s also engagingly strange, in philosophical terms as well as novelistic ones. In Simón’s series of arguments about political economy and philosophy with his fellow dockworkers, things are perennially more complicated than they seem; other subjects of disputation, like irony, diet, and idealism, are continually confounding our ability to be sure that the book is endorsing one or the other side, or even to understand and name each side of these continually unfolding disputes. Is Simón’s ironic indirectness somehow connected, as is later hinted, to his bodily urges, to his dissatisfaction with a bland vegetarian diet, or to his sexual desire, each of which is seemingly uncommon among Novillans? Is his sarcastic invocation of Candide a conscious indication of his memory and awareness of his own philosophical context, or a mere joke, or an unconscious echo? In perhaps the book’s funniest moment Simón self-satirizes the impulse to make sense of it all as he reflects on the questions that are multiplying out of control for him as well as for his reader:
And what is he up to, anyway, with Elena, a woman he barely knows, the mother of the child’s new friend? Is he hoping to seduce her, because in memories that are not entirely lost to him seducing one another is something that men and women do? Is he insisting on the primacy of the personal (desire, love) over the universal (goodwill, benevolence)? And why is he continually asking himself questions instead of just living, like everyone else? Is it all part of a far too tardy transition from the old and comfortable (the personal) to the new and unsettling (the universal)? Is the round of self-interrogation nothing but a phase in the growth of each new arrival, a phase that people like Álvaro and Ana and Elena have by now successfully passed through? If so, how much longer before he will emerge as a new, perfected man?
But the questions don’t go away, for all that Simón and we can try to systematize them; nor does the “perfected man” ever emerge. If this book is in some weak sense haunted by Christian allegory, it’s also crafted to frustrate other forms of allegorical reading, other reductions to a single problem or idea or topic. It is surely tempting, and probably even necessary, to try to read The Childhood of Jesus as an extended meditation about rationalism and its discontents — and hence to see Novilla as a certain kind of atheist’s heaven, a utopia of mild, dispassionate benevolence against which David and Simón in their own ways rebel in the name of irrationality and an anarchism of the heart. But this still only resolves some small fraction of its enigmas, and in fact this is the book’s greatest charm — not its philosophical depth but its persistent strangeness.
And nothing in The Childhood of Jesus is more hauntingly strange than the child, David, whose rebellions have none of the rational veneer of Simón’s attempted arguments. Instead they work on two levels at once: as pure childish intransigence, and as an enchantingly weird, inchoate refusal of common language and common meaning. At one point David claims to speak in a private language rather than the universal beginners’ Spanish of Novilla; at another, like a mathematical savant or a Pythagorean mystic, he seems to be able to count only out of order, by encountering each number as an individual term. And in one of many scenes where he and Simón read together in a children’s edition of Don Quixote, he becomes angry that he can’t make up the story as he goes, or find out what happens between the chapters:
“I can read.”
“No, you can’t. 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 own fantasies. You have to stop being silly. You have to stop being a baby.”
Never before has he spoken so directly to the child, so harshly.
“I don’t want to read your way,” says the child. “I want to read my way. There was a man of double deed and nandynandynandy need, and when he rode he was a horse and when he walked he was a porse.”
“That is nothing but nonsense. There is no such thing as a porse. Don Quixote is not nonsense. You can’t just make up nonsense and pretend you are reading about him.”
“I can! It’s not nonsense and I can read! It’s not your book, it’s my book!” And with a frown he returns to whipping furiously through the pages.
“On the contrary, it’s señor Benengeli’s book that he gave to the world, therefore it belongs to all of us — to all of us in one sense, and to the library in another sense, but not to you alone in any sense. And stop tearing at the pages. Why are you handling the book so roughly?”
“Because. Because if I don’t hurry a hole will open.”
“Open up where?”
“Between the pages.”
This is a marvelous, irresolvably puzzling tantrum, in which David simultaneously sounds like a genuine child and like a miniature Paul de Man, unable to read through the book’s aporias and lacunae. His steadfast refusal to conform to the world — both the social world and the world of meaning — inhabited by everyone around him is fascinating intellectually, and also the most emotionally moving facet of the book. David is either, or both, a magical child like the child Jesus in the temple, albeit one whose miracles are all of the rather intellectual kind displayed here; or else he is a troubled child whose conceptual disabilities are of a more ordinary kind. The ambiguity is intellectually interesting, but the most touching and novelistic part of the story, too, is the steadfast if perhaps ill-considered love of his guardians, both Simón and his “mother” Inés, who refuse to allow him to be sent off to a “special” school for the correction of his unique worldview. David is of course a Quixote of his own kind, holding out against a world which he sees differently from everyone else; but then so is Simón, too, in his way. Too many Quixotes, not enough Sanchos.
In two smaller ways, though, this passage is also an example of The Childhood of Jesus’s abiding metafictional strangeness, which in its own way continues Coetzee’s recent penchant for boundary-pushing experimentation and calls even the cover’s tag of “Fiction” into some doubt. First, in the world of Novilla, the author of Don Quixote is apparently not Miguel de Cervantes but “Cide Hamete Benengeli,” who in our world was the fictional Arab author whose nonexistent manuscript Cervantes purported to be translating. How can this be? Is it nothing more than a winking acknowledgement that the world of Novilla is itself a fiction, within a text, and therefore closer to the nonexistent Benengeli than the historical Cervantes, or is some stranger, more elusive game afoot? And if Cervantes once claimed to be translating Benengeli into Spanish, something seemingly similar is happening here too: all the dialogue in The Childhood of Jesus is of course purportedly translated into the English we read, from the basic New-World Spanish spoken in Novilla. (Why Spanish? This is never made clear, but it seems possible that it’s connected to the romantic vision of Brazil diagnosed in a fictional Coetzee in Summertime; perhaps in whoever’s fantasy spawned Novilla, if it is a utopia, Spanish is the language of a postracial mestizo state, a place of common goodwill and shared labor.) But then, nonsense is untranslatable: are we really meant to imagine that “porse” began as some equivalent bit of non-Spanish (“paballo”)? And “There was a man of double deed” is in fact, in our world, a traditional English song: how is it possible that this line has made the leap across languages, into the imagined Spanish and back out again? This sneakily breaks what ought to be — what we have assumed is — one of the rules of the fictional frame of The Childhood of Jesus, introducing a crack into the container in which we receive the story, a hole between or within its pages, without even giving us any means to conjecture why it is doing so. The English words we are reading are the only words there ever were; why did we think otherwise? What can we think, after noticing this, about the imagined strangeness, the estrangement, of Novilla from our own world, linguistic or otherwise?
As I said, every review of The Childhood of Jesus seems to end up as a list of unanswered questions. It is interesting to imagine the reception this book would have had, in an alternate history much like those portrayed in some of Coetzee’s other recent work, if its author were an obscure, marginal intellectual without a Nobel and two Bookers to his name. (I’m picturing “Tapestry,” the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Q takes Picard into an alternate version of his life, a life which he has spent playing it safe rather than becoming the daring and heroic figure that we know.) Without its readers already knowing that the political intensity of Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K, and Disgrace, and the aesthetic and ethical intellect of Foe and Elizabeth Costello, lay behind it, how would The Childhood of Jesus have been read? It’s hard to imagine it’d even have been published; and even if some fringe experimental or academic press had taken a gamble, just on account of its engagingly Kafka-like, stripped-bare narrative voice, it’s hard to imagine this book being read seriously by an audience numbering in the thousands rather than the dozens. In our world, though, Coetzee has been extended a remarkable amount of credit for this unprecedentedly enigmatic book. Perhaps the master has caused us to furrow our brows once more, its reviewers seem to say, but surely there’s some reason for all this confusion.
Some have seen in The Childhood of Jesus a return to the form of some of Coetzee’s earlier work — especially Waiting for the Barbarians, whose world is similarly outside our own, an allegorical or science-fictional place rather than a realistic contemporary or historical setting. But in The Childhood of Jesus, the reader’s initial confusion and our process of discovery follows the main characters’ — and what confuses us, mostly, is not the characters’ responses to the demands of conscience, nor the form of the story, nor its dwelling on the boundary between fact and fiction; it is instead the mysterious world of Novilla. Unlike almost all of Coetzee’s prior work, this book must be seen as a work of speculative fiction — that is, in reading it we must discover a world quite unlike our own and try to understand how it works.
It must be clear immediately and to every reader that this is not a novel but a book of puzzles, a Socratic cipher for political philosophers and a riddle for allegorists; but there are even more puzzles, and more kinds of puzzle, in this book than might be apparent on first reading. In The Childhood of Jesus Coetzee has given us not a crowd-pleasing ethical conscience-wrestling match but a philosopher’s stone, an enigma for the ages. It is a miracle of a minor sort, or a welcome accident of literary history, that this forbiddingly intellectual book will be read by a large audience; it will be a pleasure to see what we can make of it.