‘The Childhood of Jesus’, by JM Coetzee

The Childhood of Jesus, by JM Coetzee, Harvill Secker, RRP£16.99, 288 pages

A little bit of obscurity, said JM Coetzee before reading from his new work in Cape Town last year, never did anybody any harm. The Childhood of Jesus conjures a world where everyone is required to speak Spanish, where refugees from a past life arrive “washed clean of all memories” and are given the bare minimum to begin life in a city named Novilla.

David, a young boy, and Simón, a viejo, are two of these arrivals. During the sea crossing, the boy has lost the letter round his neck that explains his origins and who his parents are. Simón becomes his guardian, working at the docks as a stevedore, hauling grain to support them. He convinces a woman, Inés, that Davíd is her son, and persuades her to raise him, while he still plays the role of godfather.

This arrival of an unexpected child is the most obvious link one can make to the gospels, something the rather heavy-handed title seems to demand. In one sense, the book is a secular re-imagining of the Christian myth, the kind of thought experiment that others have tried. How would a historical individual such as Jesus be received in a different time and place? Would he be recognised as the prophet of a new social order, or (as the authorities recommend in this case) be sent to a school for children with special needs and taught how to be a docile subject?

This, though, is a crude summary of a wispy, shape-shifting book, for there are other worlds at play. The name Novilla captures the mixture of newness and nowhere that resides in literary utopias from Thomas More onwards. And as in More’s commonwealth, we are left uncertain about whether this is a brave new world or else a worryingly centralised and even sinister dictatorship of the people.

All this is overlaid by a serene imperturbability that seems almost Buddhist. Citizens of Novilla are urged to forget previous lives and attachments; their lack of interest in sex frustrates the ageing Simón. When he attends free evening classes at an unnamed Institute (which serves tasteless food), one of the earnest young philosophers explains to him that life drawing is always popular because people want to learn about the body: “He searches for the irony, but there is none, as there is no salt.”

Obscurity has always drawn Coetzee as a writer. Yet since the onset of what his biographer JC Kannemeyer calls “the Australian novels” (written since his move from South Africa), a different, more diffuse kind of obscurity has infiltrated the forms and workings of Coetzee’s books – obscurantism, perhaps. The prose has slackened and become puzzling in its operations, to this reviewer at least. Much of it is taken up with meandering and mock-serious meditations about ageing writers. In works such as Slow Man (2005) or Diary of a Bad Year (2007), meaning is being made, one senses, or a wry joke being perpetrated at some obscure remove. But quite what its consequences are, and why the reader should care, is sometimes hard to tell.

Nonetheless, for the devotee Coetzee is an artist whom, like Bob Dylan or Keith Jarrett, one is willing to stick with through the wayward patches because when they were good, they were very, very good. And because their fundamental seriousness about the creative process can never be doubted. In this sense there is something almost admirable in this kind of awkward late style: its lack of concern about being liked, or even understood.

Edward Saïd was intrigued by lateness not as maturity, harmony and resolution, but as “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction”. But Coetzee’s late style eludes both of these models. It is not one of magisterial syntheses or ex cathedra pronouncements (think Shakespeare’s Prospero, or VS Naipaul). But it is also not the ferocious, libidinal raging against the dying of the light found in Beethoven, or Philip Roth. If anything, it is deliberately minor, schematic, lapidary. Perhaps a little bland, a little lacking in salt.

The equation of irony with saltiness recalls a line from Coetzee’s previous work, Summertime (2009), when the narrator reflects on the irony of Pollsmoor prison being located in the rich suburbs of Cape Town: “But to the barbarians, as Zbigniew Herbert has pointed out, irony is simply like salt: you crunch it between your teeth and enjoy a momentary savour; when the savour is gone, the brute facts are still there. What does one do with the brute fact of Pollsmoor once the irony is used up?”

Is the world of this new book one in which all the irony has been used up? It is telling that Don Quixote, the ultimate primer in novelistic irony, is read entirely literally by the young David.

The voice of the child is new in Coetzee’s writing: it moves the story away from its bureaucratic beginnings and produces some of the most affecting parts of the book. The fundamental laws of logic and mathematics are viewed askance through David’s questions. He cannot bring himself to believe that numbers are (as Simón maintains) “like a fleet of ships sailing in order, each knowing its place”. To David they are like stars, and there are cracks between them, just as there are cracks in the pavement: “You don’t understand! You don’t remember anything! A number can fall out of the sky like Don Quixote when he fell down the crack.”

Towards the end of the book, as David, Simón and Inés flee the authorities and pick up a hitchhiker who is also one of the “number mystics”, there is a sense that disciples are being gathered, and that the real story is still to begin.

For those who like their Coetzee heavily seasoned, The Childhood of Jesus might seem rather dilute, faux-naif and sometimes ponderous. But this book will continue to act, silently and unexpectedly, on the reader’s imagination. It unpicks the Christian myth and braids it together with folk tales, the early novel, Pythagorean mysticism, Platonic philosophy, Buddhist epigrams, mathematics – powerful and poetic languages that underwrite our world. Future readers will be able to trace these borrowings more carefully but I emerged content to let this textual weave flicker on the horizon of awareness, all the while remaining a little unsure about a world that exists somewhere between the beguiling and the bland.

Hedley Twidle lectures in English at the University of Cape Town and won the Bodley Head/FT essay prize for ‘Getting Past Coetzee’ (Vintage Digital)

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