If J.M. Coetzee’s new novel is, as its title suggests, about the Biblical Jesus, it is so only at several removes, and frequently parodic ones at that.“The Childhood of Jesus” seems in some ways a return to the dystopian impulses behind the Nobel laureate’s 1980 classic, “Waiting for the Barbarians.” In the earliest drafts of that novel, white South Africans retreat to Robben Island, home of the notorious apartheid-era prison, where they await United Nations boats to carry them into exile. Now, in “The Childhood of Jesus,” displaced characters are once again delivered to a new world.
After surviving shipwreck, a middle-aged man, Simón, arrives in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country with a boy, David. In a refugee camp, they have been assigned names and ages, 45 and 5 years, and whatever evidence might have existed of David’s true parentage has been lost. Although not David’s father, Simón commits himself to a duty of care, taking employment as a stevedore, providing simple food (bread, fruit, no meat). He negotiates the benign but inflexible logic of the country’s bureaucracy, which resembles a drab socialist utopia where buses are free and people improve themselves through evening classes. Nothing, however, is particularly easy: Initially, they have little to eat, and the rules of their new home are often opaque.
One day, Simón observes a woman named Inés playing tennis, and, through what can only be described as a leap of faith, he decides this stranger must be David’s mother — not his biological mother, but his true mother. Consequently, he delivers the boy into her care. She is apparently a virgin, a nod to the novel’s secular reimagination of the Jesus story.
Other allusions follow. When a dead stevedore is described as “crossing the seas . . . to the next life,” Simón assures David that they, too, will have another life. David dislikes bread and fish but is given to proclamations such as “I am the truth.” Whether he proves to be Christ or anti-Christ, he is undoubtedly a gifted and singular child. Among other feats, he adopts his own system of mathematics and miraculously teaches himself to read in the space of two weeks.
For the reader familiar with the totality of Coetzee’s work, sophisticated meta-critical games seem to be afoot as the novel engages with the author’s recurring thematic concerns. Like David Lurie in the Booker Prize-winning “Disgrace,” Simón is preoccupied with his own sexual needs but also those of male dogs. Like amputee Paul Rayment in “Slow Man,” Simón contemplates the role of godfathers, and, more teasingly, imagines that facing an empty weekend “is like waking after surgery to find a limb has been cut off.” In its apparent island setting and in Simón’s quest for David’s mother, the book seems to mirror Susan Barton’s search for her daughter in “Foe.” There are numerous allusions to other Coetzee novels, too, as if these characters are living in an entirely Coetzeean universe, reincarnated after the death of their previous selves.
I am not suggesting that Coetzee is repeating himself. Rather, this new novel can be read as a masterful act of self-criticism, as well as a radical thought experiment, as though he were asking, “What might happen if characters from a previous work were reborn in a new one, with only shadow memories of their prior selves?”
As well as an intriguing literary and metaphysical puzzle, the book is also one of profound and painful humanity, preoccupied with some of the most essential questions about what it means to be a parent and what happens when noble principles are confronted with the grubby details of everyday life.
In this new place, there is no indigenous population. The immigrants are people without history, living in a land without history, “washed clean” of their memories. Return to their previous lives is impossible. They can only move forward, which Simón, David and Inés eventually begin to do, accompanied by a bearded stranger, Juan, who might be analogous to the Evangelist John, or, indeed, to Coetzee himself, author of this acrobatically complex and curiously moving gospel.
Flanery is the author of “Absolution” and the recently published novel “Fallen Land.”
By J.M. Coetzee
Viking. 277 pp. $26.95