‘The Childhood of Jesus’ Has the Simplicity of Myth But None of the Clarity

Like many of J.M. Coetzee’s books, this one feels written for and about the author himself, ruthlessly interrogating his own beliefs and purpose.

The Childhood of Jesus is, of course, not about the childhood of Jesus. It’s about two immigrants in Novilla, a fictional city that Coetzee renders like a child’s drawing, with spaces in between everything. The two immigrants are David, a child, and Simón, the middle-aged man who cares for him. But these are just the names that were assigned to them at a processing center, where they also learned Spanish, the language of their new home. They are in Novilla to start a new life, though why or how is unclear.

Simón, our protagonist, describes their migration as an inevitability, not a choice. But he has a purpose, one acquired on their journey: find David’s mother. Simón has never seen her before; he doesn’t know her name; David doesn’t know what she looks like. Nevertheless, Simón claims he will know her when he sees her. This is Simón’s driving force, and it’s through this lens that he views the new world around him.

This lens shows Novilla as a gray city, home to people of limited thoughts and appetite. As Simón and David acquire the accoutrements of a new life – a place to live, a job, friends – Simón’s unsympathetic view of the world around him rings true. People are devoid of passion; they are not interested in change; there is no dreaming, no imagination. Over time, a quiet decency shows itself to exist in a few – Álvaro, the foreman at the docks; Elena, the mother of David’s friend Fidel – but Novilla is largely dull.

Simón is not likable, either. He’s rigid in his beliefs, and prone to enacting them tactlessly. When he tries to demonstrate passion, he is lecherous; when he tries to promote change, he is insulting and cruel.

His insistence on intuiting the identity of David’s mother leads him to Inés, a brittle, naïve woman to whom it is difficult to relate, who seems a poor choice of caretaker. David doesn’t believe she is his mother, but at Simón’s urging, he accepts her into his life with a combination of placidity and protectiveness that is almost autistic in its strangeness.

David is a strange, frightening child. He’s absolutely sure of himself, rendering absurd convictions into unsettling principles through sheer force of will. He thinks that stars are numbers. He tries to bring dead animals back to life. He says he has no mother. He’s not especially cute, for that matter, and his strange comprehension of the world around him feels prophetic and unbalanced.

Is David Jesus? If so, the novel feels like an indictment of religion: Jesus as a weird kid that sometimes seems precocious only because he lacks stable parents to wean him from his childhood. There’s no proof that he’s not just a normal child. Simón claims to see something in his eyes, but all that he can say is that what he sees is “like a fish”.

Later, Simón has a vision of David as a charioteer, imperious and regal, and though he takes it as an omen, it’s more likely a drug-induced hallucination. It’s easy to sympathize with the counselor at David’s school, who deconstructs David’s oddity into bite-sized bits of modern psychology, inert and treatable.

David is not Jesus. He’s too particular, his reality too fragile. But then what to make of the title?

Like many of Coetzee’s books, this one feels written for and about the author himself, ruthlessly interrogating his own beliefs and purpose. He seem persuaded by the reality he creates but writes on anyway, caught inexorably in an act of creation he doesn’t find persuasive.

As far as I can tell, this book is what happens when Coetzee thinks about Jesus. It’s private; it’s inward; it’s hard to imagine this spare, strange story changing anyone’s mind. It’s a machine that examines every piece of itself.

Thus, the strangeness of Coetzee’s unsentimental world, where ideas and principles take on all the emotional burden. The story is told mostly through dialogue, which is unusual for Coetzee, whose characters tend to be inward in the extreme. Often in his works, dialogue cuts into characters’ thoughts like a knife, exposing their insides to the harsh light of day. Here, conversations have a formal, off-kilter quality, and feel like philosophical treatises even when they’re about pragmatic concerns. There’s always a point being made.

None of it feels natural. None of it feels real. But neither does it feel like a fable, a recasting of Christianity’s origin story: it’s too prickly, too uneven. It has the simplicity of a myth, but none of the clarity. There’s an ambiguity here that is unusual for Coetzee, an author whose works are so suited to negative adjectives that leave no room for equivocation: unsentimental, uncompromising, unsparing.

But The Childhood of Jesus is not just about denial. David and Simón continue to move forward, in awkward fits and bursts, picking up other souls along the way, and finally clustering them altogether on an unexpected note – a road trip, of all things – that’s too ambiguous to forestall any possibilities. There’s a surprising gentleness in the end, and its impact lingers; for such a stark work, it has a feather-light touch.

And this is why it’s such an emotional novel, especially for an author whose brilliance is so often harsh. The characters in The Childhood of Jesus are dislikable, almost unbelievable, but in the novel’s last moments, Coetzee refrains from condemning them. They are not found good or bad, redeemed or irredeemable, but merely left to exist.

Finally, Coetzee stays his hand from judgment, from them and from himself.

RATING 8 / 10