First Thoughts on The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Some preliminary, inadequate notes on J.M. Coetzee's new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, after a first reading:

Kafka and Cervantes haunt this novel, as they haunt so much of Coetzee's work. Cervantes is there on the pages — the boy David carries around a children's copy of Don Quixote and learns to read from it. Kafka is more of a ghost in the book, a presence haunting its words. The Childhood of Jesus tempts us toward reading it as allegory, a tendency common to Kafka's work, and Coetzee has written insightfully about Kafka many times, including a valuable essay on "Translating Kafka" in Stranger Shores that criticizes Edwin and Willa Muir's allegorical and religious reading of Kafka and the effect it had on their translations. Reading Coetzee allegorically is always a false path and yet one he seems to enjoy tempting readers toward. This time, the temptation is even in the title.

The title is mischievous, because there is no character named Jesus in the novel, though there are certainly allusions to the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Coetzee, like Kafka, is often mischievous; and, like Kafka, his mischievous tendencies often go unnoticed by readers and critics. His playfulness has only become more pronounced in the books since Disgrace and the Nobel Prize, books that flagrantly transgress expectations of genre and realism, books seemingly designed to torture readers who desire one, stable meaning in the texts they read, and who insist on knowing what is real and what is not.

The Childhood of Jesus tells a fairly simple story of a man named Simón and a boy named David who come as refugees to a place named Novilla and begin new lives. David has lost his parents and doesn't even remember them (some details were on a note pinned to him, but he lost it); Simón has accepted responsibility for David and tries to help him find his mother. Novilla is a kind of limbo, a low-grade utopia, a boring dream. In Spanish, novilla means "heifer", and it may be worth thinking of the red heifer from Numbers 19: the red heifer is "without defect or blemish and ... has never been under a yoke", and it must be sacrificed to create cleanliness and purity. This is, in Lawrence Wright's words, "one of the most mysterious injunctions in the Bible. Even King Solomon, who was said to understand the meaning of all things, could not explain the reason for the red heifer." Novilla is a place that has been cleansed of extremes and extremism, a place of bland goodness, where the highest praise is the word goodwill. It is in some ways, perhaps, like the sanatoria and health spas that Kafka so often visited, ascetic places designed to help their citizens escape from time and wants and suffering.

The rituals of ordinary life continue in Novilla. Simón gets a job as a stevedore on the docks. The work is hard, but he gets along well with most of his colleagues. He finds the work perplexing, though, because it is basically pointless: all of the grain they unload from the boats is, he discovers, stored in a warehouse where it rots away, eaten by rats. Novilla has plenty of grain for food, but the shipments keep coming and keep getting unloaded, then hauled to the warehouse. Simón later convinces his boss to bring in a crane to make the unloading of the ships more efficient. This nearly causes Simón's death when he is knocked overboard by a swinging load. The stevedores decide to get rid of the crane and go back to the old, difficult, slow way of unloading the ships. Novilla is a place of insistent tradition, a place where change need not be forbidden because it is not desired.

Desire is a central idea flowing through the novel. Early in the book, Simón talks with his neighbor Elena, a woman who claims to feel no real desire for him or anyone else, but who feels goodwill, benevolence. Simón responds:
"Benevolence, I must tell you, is what we keep encountering here. Everyone wishes us well, everyone is ready to be kind to us. We are positively borne along on a cloud of goodwill. But it all remains a bit abstract. Can goodwill by itself satisfy our needs? Is it not in our nature to crave something more tangible?"

Deliberately Elena extracts her hand from his. "You may want more than goodwill; but is what you want better than goodwill? That is what you should keep asking yourself."
Novilla is a place of unenthusiastic contentment. Simón and David come into this world and upset the norms, as their perceptions and desires lead them inevitably into discontentment. Coetzee has long been a masterful chronicler of the perils and shames of masculine lust — again and again he gives us portraits of somewhat pathetic, somewhat bewildered men whose desires turn them into monsters or fools, and, as often as not, ruin their lives. (In his autobiographical trilogy, particularly Summertime, he gives just such a character his own name.) Simón is a bit of a change from that mold: a character of, yes, bumbling lust, but good at heart, an imperfectly but truly decent man. In a novel where so many other characters are strange, flat, or simply unknowable, this renders Simón as different from the others, a character who seems grounded, familiar, "realistic".

But even Simón makes one large, bizarre decision: He decides, for no apparent reason, that a woman he sees playing tennis must be David's mother, and he gives David (and his little apartment) to her. The woman, Inés, becomes a smothering, overprotective mother. She's not horrible, just naive, impulsive, and quite childish herself. Clearly, she has strong feelings for David and doesn't know what to do with those feelings, or even what to do with David except treat him like a pet (she also has a dog). David goes along with this as best he can, and seems to enjoy her some, but she's not exactly what he had in mind for a mother. Nonetheless, she'll do.

What Simón learns is that once he's taken responsibility for a child, he can't just abandon that child to the care of a mother-figure. He's a good guardian, perhaps even a good father-figure, because his instincts are toward generosity and decency. Inés will probably even be a good mother eventually. What David teaches them both by the end, though, is that that is not enough. David's instincts and desires are to gather more people into their family, and to move on, away from Novilla (toward a northern town, Estrellita, "little star"). Contentment is not enough. Life is a journey toward new beginnings, a search for somewhere to stay.

David is a strange child, with mystical, impractical ideas about words and numbers and things. In an essay on Gabriel García Márquez's Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores in Inner Workings, Coetzee spends a few pages discussing Don Quixote — pages that seem to me important for an understanding of The Childhood of Jesus and, in particular, David:
Quixote seems a bizarre fellow at first acquaintance, but most of those who come into contact with him end up half converted to this way of thinking, and therefore half quixotic themselves. If there is any lesson he teaches, it is that in the interest of a better, more lively world it might not be a bad idea to cultivate in oneself a capacity for dissociation, not necessarily under conscious control, even though this might lead outsiders to conclude that one suffers from intermittent delusions.
That's not a bad description of David. The shadow of Don Quixote also helps explain why Coetzee chose to make Spanish the default language of his imagined world: in the same essay he asserts that, "The spirit of Cervantes runs deep in Spanish literature." Spanish serves as a kind of shorthand for readers, too, especially those of us who do not live in Spanish-speaking countries and assume that all contemporary Spanish literature is "magical realist". Coetzee says, "Despite having the tag 'magic realist' attached to him, García Márquez works very much in the tradition of psychological realism, with its premise that the operations of the individual psyche have a logic that is capable of being tracked." The oddness of the book, and its use of Spanish, may lead us to expect some supernatural occurrences, but our expectation for psychological realism will remain an obstacle. Realism is a concept Coetzee has always enjoyed exploring (and undermining), and he frequently lets our expectations lead us astray, because we need to experience the failure of our expectations before we can overcome them and approach the text, like a new world, with open eyes.

Much more can be said, and will be, I'm sure, as the book makes its way into the world and becomes part of the ever-growing scholarly industry in Coetzee studies. I've said nothing here about the language of the book and the text's focus on language as tool and torment (and joke — I love the moment where everybody in a scene mistakes German for English, and the moment where David says Mickey Mouse has a dog named Plato). It's a book, too, about translation and travel, a book that in its original English feels, to my ears, translated. It is a philosophical novel and one full of philosophical musings (deliberately banal, I think, to show that philosophy finds import and uniqueness in the concrete, if ambiguous, reality that narrative can provide. We've been asking the same questions as least since the pre-Socratic philosophers, without answers — the answers are in the multiplicity of stories we tell from the questions).

It's a beautiful, affecting, mysterious book. I look forward to reading it again, and perhaps writing more about it in the future, for I have a hunch that, like all of Coetzee's best work, it will reveal much more on every reading. After all, a first reading of a great book is like a first arrival at a great place. The traveler opens to the first page and says, "Hello, I am a new arrival, and I am looking for somewhere to stay. Somewhere to start a new life."