A man and boy arrive by boat to a new land. At the immigration camp they are taught Spanish and arrive at their new town. The authorities guess their ages and give them names, and the man begins his search for the boy’s mother. The Childhood of Jesus, by J. M. Coetzee, is a curious novel that resists revelation and withholds information from the reader in a way that can only be an uneven success.
The opening of The Childhood of Jesus, establishes the man, Simon, and the boy, David, as bound to survive in an inhospitable world. Bureaucrats reduce the promise of free shelter to a freezing tent for the first nights, and the fight for survival echoes the father/son relationship in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. There seems to be a large absence of shops and people feel distant and muted around Simon’s struggle to decode the city around him. He gets a job hauling grain from a dock to a boat where his co-workers scoff at the idea of mechanised cranes replacing them in the name of efficiency. The job is well paid and the staff spend their evenings studying philosophy at the government education centre.
The socialist tone of the new land extends to relationships: passionate relationships aren’t considered a part of this world, and Simon yearns for intimacy when he’s offered sex in a dispassionately utilitarian way from a neighbour. The narrative reflects the muted attitude and deflated silence of the absence of conflicts, love affairs and nightlife. Coetzee sets up this strange city that resists ideas of utopia and dystopia through its sterility: is it a peaceful post-capitalist world? A benign dictatorship? The reader pours their pre-conceptions into the space that Coetzee creates.
The pair’s central aim, looking for David’s mother, initially seems fraught with difficulties and the story arc for the novel. However, the search ends early when a woman they stumble upon playing tennis outside a luxury compound agrees to be the boy’s mother. Her possession of David alienates Simon who is confused by her bizarre behaviour and views of motherhood. Simon tries to bond with David by trying to teach him to read from an abridged version of Don Quixote, and many pages are devoted to David’s refusal to learn to read or add – and claiming that he can innately understand maths and is scared by the spaces between the pages of his book.
The third act becomes more interested in David’s murmurs about reading and writing and the dynamics of the contorted family unit that surrounds him. There’s a sense that there is a some great statement about the abstractions of learning and metaphysics that simply doesn’t come off. When Simon enters school and is sent to a distant camp for children that require specialised teaching we never get an insight into the moral colour of this camp. Is David oppressed or being nurtured by a land that wants to enrich its citizens with education? Without this knowledge, it’s hard to have a response to the conclusion of the narrative or really be engaged by the emphasis put on David.
Unsurprisingly, we learn little more about this new land by the end of the novel. It’s undeniable that Coetzee creates an enigmatic and superbly crafted universe for his characters to inhabit, but, at times, it all seems a rather pointless exercise. In Coetzee’s much lauded Disgrace, Coetzee withholds the racial identity of a group of South African attackers: the absence of this has enthralled academics and is an intelligent contribution to the presentation of race in literature. Coetzee holds back far too much to make the often wistful philosophical discussions in The Childhood of Jesus worthwhile. The novel is highly readable and the prose has the subtlety and beauty of the great writer that Coetzee is. Unfortunately, the potential for profundity ebbs away as the novel progresses and that makes the curiosity that Coetzee provokes go unrewarded.