The Childhood of Jesus by JM CoetzeeThursday 25 Apr 2013
Publisher: Harvill Secker, paperback
Most of JM Coetzee’s fiction is generally set in and subtly illuminates a mostly recognisable land, his native South Africa before apartheid ended. The renowned author won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003 and has twice won the Booker Prize.
His latest 277-page novel, however, is not set in any known or recognisable place. An elderly man called Simón, and a young boy David, arrive in a Spanish-speaking country, with partically nothing but the clothes on their back. There has been some kind of catastrophe at sea where the boy was separated from his mother. Simón has taken on the role of protector or guardian and vows to find the mother.
In this somewhat regimented, colourless country, man and boy try to find a place to live in the city of Novilla. But to do so, they must deal with a confusing series of bureaucratic encounters. Even getting decent food, instead of the ubiquitous bread rolls, proves an ordeal.
Simón and David eventually secure a room in a drab apartment block. Shortly afterwards, at a tennis court in the grounds of a decaying ruin, Simón idenitfies a woman called Inés, whom he instinctively recognises as David’s mother.
There is no evidence or proof of obvious kinship, nor indeed does David recognise her as a boy would his mother. Yet Inés takes on the mantle of motherhood. The boy doesn’t question the decision and goes along with the idea uncomplainingly.
Despite the affectionate bond that Simón and David have formed, Simón readily gives over the rooms at the apartment block to Inés so that she can properly care for the boy. He sleeps in a far less comfortable situation at the wharf where he has found work, unloading sacks of grain from ships.
This is particularly arduous work which is done uncomplainingly by a team of workmen, who are unquestioningly proud of their role in bringing the inhabitants so much bread, the staff of life.
Indeed, the workmen are taken aback by Simon’s expressed unease with the needless and tiresome unloading, although he is nevertheless appreciative of the employment.
Couldn’t cranes unload the stuff in bulk, he asks, or a pipe convey the grain to where it needs to go? The workmen bring him to see a vast grain store, where he discovers that rats are steadily gnawing their way through the grain sacks.
In this strange new land, he has some awkward encounters with Elena, the mother of a boy called Fidel, whom David briefly befriended. Everybody he meets seems to think differently from him about the usual matters of daily life.
Sexual feeling, for instance, is kept entirely separated from love, and one applies to an agency for sexual encounters - more bureaucracy and firm-filling, in fact.
In its strangely chilly and formal encounters, based on continuous misunderstanding on the part of Simón, JM Coetzee’s masterful novel draws subtle pointers about the human condition, about greed, desire, notions of sufficiency and human restlessness.
But they are not obvious paradigms, and as with the works of Franz Kafka, the reader is feeling his way through the dreamscape, along with the hapless protagonist.