The Childhood of Jesus starts with a man looking for a place to stay after having to travel a long distance. He has a boy with him, not his ‘real’ son, but a child he is responsible for. There are no rooms available. The only place for the night is under a makeshift lean-to at the side of a house. It’s not quite a stable, but this is not Bethlehem 2000-odd years ago.
It’s difficult to ignore the title of Coetzee’s twelfth novel while reading it, to not wonder about the significance of the symbolism, or try to work out exactly what he’s saying between all those wonderfully worded lines. How could the events in this narrative relate to the childhood of Jesus? Is he even talking about Jesus Christ? Or does he mean – since the story is set in a Spanish-speaking land – someone called Jesús? The whole novel reads like a complex riddle wrapped in a simple story.
The man and boy arrive at a relocation centre in the city of Novilla. They have been given new names: Simón and David. Like everyone else in Novilla, they have been ‘washed clean’ of all their previous memories and experiences. This means they don’t know anything about David’s parents, especially since the boy lost an envelope containing his mother’s details on the boat trip over.
Simón is still determined to find David’s mother. He’s certain – even after being ‘washed clean’ – that he’ll know her when he sees her. And sure enough, Simón quickly finds a woman, Inés, and convinces her that she is David’s mother even though she has no recollection of ever seeing the boy. Inés seems inexperienced in motherhood. It’s even suggested she might be a virgin. She moves in to Simón’s apartment to look after David, and forces Simón to move out. She indulges the boy, spoils him, and keeps him from school. Simón has to struggle to work his way back in to David’s life and provide him with the discipline and direction he needs.
Simón is also coming to terms with his new surroundings. Everyone he meets is extremely polite, patient and welcoming, but their lives, as Simón sees it, are bland, aimless, almost robotic. Their steadfast adherence to the status quo frustrates Simón. He questions their blind obedience and engages them in long philosophical discussions on a range of topics, from desire and the futility of labour to the existence of history and even – yes – the pooness of poo. These debates, almost Socratic dialogues, can continue for several pages, putting the story on hold while everyone has their say. This, surely, is when Coetzee will reveal his intentions, his greater message. But the discourse is usually evenly balanced, with both sides making equally valid points. We have to keep guessing, keep looking for clues if we are to understand the world the author has created. While we’re busy with that, Simón too is struggling to interpret the rules and customs of this unfamiliar country. And that is Coetzee’s art, to challenge the reader as much as he challenges his protagonist. He doesn’t want us to simply enjoy a story about a man and a boy in a strange setting, he wants us to put in some effort too, and maybe bring us close to experiencing emotions similar to those of his characters. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether this novel is about the childhood of Jesus, or Jesús, what matters most is that we follow Simón in his search for answers.
Any Cop?: Here is yet more evidence of Coetzee’s mastery, and his skill in manipulating the reader. Even if you do manage to put the title out of your mind, you’ll still find The Childhood of Jesus an entertaining, thought-provoking read.