A middle-aged man and a five-year-old boy arrive at a relocation center in a nameless Hispanophone country. They are assigned the names Simón and David. We learn that Simón met David aboard ship and became his self-appointed guardian after David lost a letter explaining where he could find his mother. They move to a city called Novilla (Spanish for “young bull” but sounds like “novella”), where Simón takes a job as a stevedore. One day, Simón wanders into a gated community where he sees Inés playing tennis. Without explanation, he decides that she must be David’s mother and persuades her to adopt the role. Inés moves into Simón’s apartment and kicks him out. She coddles and spoils David. Simón learns that David is gifted and joins Inés in defying government officials who want to send him to a special school.
Coetzee’s simple plot is structured as a series of philosophical discussions between Simón and another character. What is the nature of parental love? What does it mean for a child to be gifted? What are the benefits of learning metaphysics? Why is technological progress important?
What does any of this have to do with Jesus?
Coetzee’s title suggests an allegory or a contemporary retelling of the Christ narrative. Creative re-imaginings of the historical Jesus have been popular ever since late antiquity and most recently after The Da Vinci Code, itself a recycling of the sensational (and almost completely unfounded) conspiracy theories in the nonfiction work, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. José Saramago wrote an alternative history of Christ, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which went so far as to depict a teenage Jesus being tempted to have sex with a sheep. Norman Mailer wrote a very orthodox retelling of the life of Jesus in the first person, The Gospel According to the Son. (He followed it with a creative retelling of the childhood of Hitler, The Castle in the Forest.) More recently, Philip Pullman wrote The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which depicts two brothers: Jesus, a moral and god-fearing man, and Christ, a schemer who wants to build a powerful church. Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary imagines that Mary did not believe that her son was also the son of God and that she refused to collaborate with the writers of the gospels.
Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus is a story about a bratty kid in a developing socialist country doted on by two very unsympathetic parents. It is replete with philosophical dialogues about the nature of familial love and the proper way of unloading grain from a ship. Jesus is never mentioned. It is not what we expect to find when we pick up a novel called The Childhood of Jesus.
The idea of Jesus as an insubordinate and difficult child is found in early apocryphal gospels. (The canonical gospels are silent about the life of Jesus from infancy to about the age of twelve.) One of the most popular works of the second century, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, depicts Jesus as a trickster, a genius and a brat. He breathes life into birds made of clay; he curses schoolboys who jostle or try to wrestle with him, causing them to wither and die; he blinds his neighbors who complain of his unruly behavior; he refuses to learn from his schoolteachers and then reveals his superior knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. Likewise, Coetzee’s David believes he can resurrect a dead worker by “sucking the smoke out of him”; he has a neutralizing effect on a (potentially) vicious dog; he refuses to learn from his schoolteachers or Simón and then reveals fluency in Spanish.
But even this correspondence is deliberately weak. The Childhood of Jesus is equally about how miracle narratives (and messiahs) no longer have relevance today. As Kafka put it, “the Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary.”
And Coetzee’s novel borrows more from Kafka’s The Castle than it does from the gospels. In Kafka’s final novel, a redundant messiah-like hero arrives in a hostile land, barely speaks the language, has difficulty getting a job, wrestles against an unfair bureaucracy, takes on a lover, is exiled out of his own home and becomes a janitor and stubbornly insists on pursuing a mysterious quest which has meaning only to him. In Coetzee’s novel, a man arrives in a hostile land with a messiah-like child, barely speaks the language, wrestles against an unfair bureaucracy, takes on a lover, is exiled out of his own home and goes to live in a janitor’s closet and stubbornly insists on pursuing a mysterious quest which has meaning only to him.
Coetzee’s juvenile Jesus is more like a juvenile Kafka. When Simón reads to David from the children’s version of Don Quixote, David stubbornly refuses to accept that Don Quixote is the mad one, even after Simón explains that the giant is in fact a windmill. “He’s not a windmill, he’s a giant!” David shouts. “He’s only a windmill in the picture.” This reads like a naive version of Kafka’s famous parable: “Don Quixote’s misfortune is not his imagination, but Sancho Panza.”
Like his other literary hero, Samuel Beckett, Coetzee has always struggled with how to emulate the fiction of an author who left his works unfinished and received little literary recognition in his lifetime. As the critic Walter Benjamin put it, “to do justice to the figure of Kafka in its purity and its peculiar beauty, one must never lose sight of one thing: it is the purity and beauty of a failure.” The failure that Kafka depicts in his fiction is intricately tied to his own despair about the impossibility of writing literature after Goethe. Kafka refused to complete his novels or take on the writing habits of his prolific and successful novelist friend, Max Brod. How does one do justice to the failure of Kafka, and yet grind out a new book every year the way Coetzee does?
Coetzee is conscious of this problem: he is too successful. The Childhood of Jesus is, in part, an exercise in willful failure—ironically, failing to write a book by J. M. Coetzee. The protagonist Simón reads like a parody of the typical Coetzeean “hero”: a lanky, brooding, uncommunicative middle-aged man who is very particular about the ethics of eating meat (he eats beef but thinks of pork as “filthy”) and who wants to sleep with every woman he meets. The plot is structured as a series of philosophical conversations. “You were telling me about goodwill the other day, goodwill as a universal balm for all our ills,” begins a typical chapter. This way of jumping right into the middle of a discussion, without even setting the scene, recalls Plato’s dialogues. “In fact, your question does not leave me unprepared,” The Symposium begins. (David mistakenly refers to Mickey Mouse’s dog as “Plato” instead of “Pluto.”) In previous works like Elizabeth Costello (2004), philosophical disagreements are deeply unsettling and make up the unique stuff of Coetzee’s drama. But here, Coetzee seems determined to avoid tension even at the ideological level. One section begins, “Eugenio seems intent on showing that their disagreement about rats, history, and the organization of dockside labor has left no hard feelings.” One wishes there were hard feelings. Just as a conflict begins to develop between the adoptive parents and the government officials, the novel ends without any clear resolution.
The Childhood of Jesus is a novel that is aware of its own limitations: as an allegory of Jesus that does not fully cohere, as an emulation of Kafka’s modernism which cannot really be emulated and as a politically unsettling work by Coetzee that quickly turns lukewarm.
This kind of literary practice runs the risk of being self-indulgent, but Coetzee is more than willing to take that risk. The author, we have all come to know, is a notoriously reclusive man who spends a great deal of time thinking and writing about what it means to be J. M. Coetzee. In the third installment of his fictionalized autobiography, Summertime (2010), an academic writing a posthumous biography of J.M. Coetzee interviews friends who characterize the deceased author as reserved and inaccessible. The hero of his last novel, Diary of A Bad Year (2008), is a reclusive novelist named “Señor C,” who won the Nobel Prize in 2003. Most recently, Coetzee published Here and Now (2013), his literary correspondence with the writer Paul Auster, the kind of thing traditionally made available to the public only after the authors responsible for them are deceased.
The Childhood of Jesus is another thought-provoking installment in Coetzee’s increasingly self-reflexive literary oeuvre. It reads like an abandoned novella which was rewritten as a reflection on its own failure, the end of literary modernism and (why not?) the banality of Jesus. Ultimately, one of the things it leaves us thinking about is the banality of the late Coetzee. We are less interested in what Coetzee thinks about Coetzee than Coetzee thinks we ought to be. We read him because he tells stories that unsettle and linger with us. But The Childhood of Jesus is forgettable in a way that The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), Disgrace (2003) and the devastating Youth (2003) are not.