Lit Crit Lite – March 2014

The Childhood of Jesus

By Seth Weidenaar

My introduction to J. M. Coetzee came reading Waiting for the Barbarians, his 1980 novel.   Waiting for the Barbarians is an amazing work of fiction, and in my first reading I fell in love with the puzzling and mysterious characters, situations and places Coetzee created.  The novel rewards the persistent reader, the reader who rereads earlier sections, even the entire novel, in the hope of understanding certain pieces of the plot and puzzle more thoroughly. Being a fan of puzzles, and of this Gallup Journey Childhood of Jesusmeticulous reading, I was delighted to find that many of Coetzee’s works present puzzling situations for the reader to discover. Part of Coetzee’s genius is that he can represent the intolerable cruelty and wonderful beauty of the human experience in his mysterious novels.  Adding to his catalog of conundrums, Coetzee has offered up his latest novel The Childhood of Jesus to anyone interested in taking a plunge into a puzzling work of fiction.

The Childhood of Jesus offers up many puzzles that I am eager to discuss in this review, and with anyone who will help me piece them together, but a quick outline of the plot seems to be a necessary point of departure.  Revealing the plot will reveal nothing of the novel’s special qualities, so do not let the simplicity of this outline push you from reading the novel.  An older man named Simón and a boy named David have moved to a new place name Novilla.  Neither person can remember any useful details of their life before arriving in Novilla, and neither person can communicate effectively with the citizens of Novilla as they both learn rudimentary Spanish, the language of Novilla. David has lost his mother, and Simón has taken the task of helping David find her; Simón is certain that when David finds his mother he will remember her by instinct. Simón and David struggle to live and fit into the community of Novilla, but eventually they find an apartment, and Simón finds work as a stevedore.  One day the two see a woman named Ines, and David has an emotional reaction. Simón takes this to be a sign that Ines must be David’s mother. Ines, somewhat unwillingly, adopts David, and the two marginalize Simón.  The mother/son relationship is far from perfect, and David is far from perfect and eventually runs into trouble at school.  In the hope of helping develop the personality of David, Ines convinces Simón to seek a new life with her and David somewhere outside Novilla.

Upon this relatively simple plot line hang the great puzzles of the work; most of these puzzles come back to three baffling problems.  The first of these is the simple language of the novel.  The novel contains few words of more than three syllables, and hardly any complicated sentences. Coetzee is a master of English prose, and after reading one chapter, the language of the novel sticks out as being part of a larger puzzle, but like the other puzzles of the novel, the key to understanding seems to be nowhere in the text of the novel.  While this is puzzling, the novel’s plot is advanced primarily through dialogue, and Coetzee shows his mastery of writing by hanging nearly the entire plot upon the dialogue of characters.

Another great problem is the title of the novel.  The Childhood of Jesus is certain to attract numerous readers who will discard the book quickly upon learning that the Biblical figure plays no direct part in the novel.  The novel’s child character bears no resemblance to the Biblical figure except in allegory, and not just any allegory. Thinking about the connections has given me multiple headaches causing me to run to the store for ibuprofen.  This might not be Coetzee’s intent, but I cannot be sure.  While thinking through the deep layers of allegory can be frustrating, and painful, there are several situations that resemble the Biblical Jesus and his teachings; however, they do not always focus upon David.  This makes for an interesting problem, why did Coetzee title his work in this way?  I do not pretend to hold the answers to this question; like a student I can present conservative and somewhat provable arguments for what I think, but I would love to hear from someone else who has read the novel.  Perhaps another reader can straighten out my ideas.

The third conundrum of the novel has to do with the message of the work. Not fitting in seems to be at the forefront of Simón and David’s experiences in Novilla.  Yet even though they do not fit in their behavior seems to be completely irrational in several ways.  Perhaps this irrational behavior is to emphasize the oppressive nature of being an outsider, but that message seems too simple for Coetzee, and much too simple for the other elements of The Childhood of Jesus.  The answer most certainly lies in or near the answer to the other great puzzles of the novel.  Like a student, I can only present modest answers at this point, but I will continue to think and discuss until I can put together something more certain, and knowing Coetzee, it will probably be quite entertaining and outrageous.

Based upon this review, this novel seems incredibly dense and boring.  The Childhood of Jesus is not boring, and it is an extremely easy and fast text to read.  I recommend you read it for its challenges.  The challenges might make you a better reader, they will certainly give you a few things to ponder, and if you come across me somewhere about town we will have several conversation starters.

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