He's not the Messiah . . .
Half-hearted new novel: JM Coetzee. photograph: m frassinetti/rex features
FICTIONJM Coetzee’s new novel reads like a parody of the venerable writer’s own style and vision
The Childhood of Jesus, By JM Coetzee, Harvill Secker, 277pp, £16.99
A man arrives in a settlement. In his care is a small boy he apparently met abandoned on the journey. They are homeless refugees who have been given new names, been allocated ages and been required to master a new language, Spanish. It is all very strange, possibly postapocalyptic. Or is it? This new society appears to be run according to very simple, clear-cut directives. Bread is the main diet. Questions are not answered, and no one has any memories. The past has been erased. Simon, the man, has been informed that he is officially 45. He may be older; he feels ageless, then ancient, and soon becomes extremely exasperated.
Almost as exasperated, perhaps, as some readers may become; this is a highly eccentric narrative, which, after an intriguing opening sequence, becomes increasingly bizarre. The South African writer JM Coetzee, now an Australian citizen, was the first double winner of the Booker Prize, as it was then, with two of the finest victors in that award’s history, Life Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999), both set in South Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003. Coetzee has looked to literature, in The Master of Petersburg (1994), which draws on Dostoevsky, and more latterly to his own life, with a trilogy of fictionalised “autrebiographical” (his word) memoir/novels culminating with Summertime (2009), in which a biographer tracks Coetzee the man after the novelist’s death.
In a major career that began with Dusklands (1974), John Maxwell Coetzee explored the political reality of his native country, in daring novels such as Waiting for the Barbarians (1982) and Age of Iron (1990), with a nimble artistry that dazzled the authorities. A hero to apartheid’s opponents until the system fell, he then lost favour with the very people he had supported. His response was decisive: he went to live in Australia, taking citizenship in 2006.
His imagination remains on the move. Tormented states of mind, ambivalence and guilt stalk his work, as do the dual influences of Kafka and Beckett. Coetzee is no comedian, yet this crazy new book, intended as a parable, is hilariously, if possibly unintentionally, funny. Admittedly, it is an oddball humour: the characters are deadly serious, earnest, and much of the dialogue is such ponderously stilted robotspeak that one wonders if one has misread it.
But, no, a severe young female character actually does say to David: “Very well. You find me attractive, I can see that. Perhaps you even find me beautiful. And because you find me beautiful, your appetite, your impulse, is to embrace me. Do I read the signs correctly, the signs you give me? Whereas if you did not find me beautiful you would feel no such impulse.”
Elsewhere, on bringing the injured boy to a doctor, Simon calmly explains: “He was playing with magnesium, and it caught fire and the flash blinded him.” The doctor never asks why a child was playing with magnesium in the first place, but then many obvious questions are not asked, causing one to wonder whether this is a deliberate authorial ploy, as few of the characters appear to be sufficiently confident of their Spanish.
Simon has moments of hysterical lucidity; he may well be going mad. He is disarmingly direct when it comes to sex. Disappointed that his various overtures, including offers to father children, are not received well by the women he propositions, he is particularly offended by his failure to be accepted as a member of a sex club. The narrative begins with a hunt for a key to a room for the night that ends up being spent in a makeshift shelter. But that initial rage soon falters into an absurdist yarn that gathers in ridiculousness.
Reading this novel is rather like hearing oneself yelp out loud with laughter in a cinema while watching a melodrama that is making other members of the audience weep. If Coetzee, who has admittedly written two worse novels, such as Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Diary of a Bad Year (2007), has ever wanted to write a comedy, here it is.
Spoilt and precocious
David, the demanding little boy, may well be intended to represent the Messiah in the making. He is clever, spoilt and precocious, convinced that he can restore the dead to life. Most of the conversations centre on him, and his favourite word, as is easily guessed, is why. Simon, not the most patient of individuals, is severely tested. Having secured a job at the docks with a kindly foreman who not only employs him but also minds the boy and begins to teach him chess, Simon is feeling jaunty. David makes friends with a boy whose mother, Elena, teaches music. Although she is no longer interested in romance, Simon decides that she, too, could do with having sex – with him. Their conversations are quasi-comic, with shrewd, intelligent, world-weary Elena proving more than a match for Simon.
Initially, Coetzee could be writing a work on the familiar subject of the sexual needs of men contrasted with the emotional needs of women. There is also the theme of the totality of motherhood compared with the greater remove felt by fathers. Simon, who is mistakenly referred to throughout as David’s father and grandfather, remains intent on “one last adventure”, by which he means a sexual relationship.
The episodic story, such as it is, then shifts to the search for David’s mother. For a moment it seems as if Simon is about to reveal himself as the angel Gabriel, albeit belatedly as the boy is approximately (Coetzee favours ambiguity) six years old.
A virgin is selected. The Childhood of Jesus is presented as a parable – which it is not. Coetzee has already written one, Life Times of Michael K, a powerful work of art, which this new book fails to match.
The search for David’s mother ends at a tennis court in the grounds of an elite country club. A young woman is partnering one young man against a second young man, the stronger player. They are her brothers. Simon decides that she is the boy’s mother.Ines, a petulant woman, accepts the child and goes to live in the shabby room. She dresses David in girlish clothes and displays an obsessive protectiveness. Simon relinquishes his guardianship.
As an offbeat movie, with a suitably laconic Simon, it might almost work – Simon often shows his tender side to the boy and the characterisation of this lonely, disturbed man is the best thing in a weak book. As a novel, though, it lacks cohesion and conviction. The prose is dangerously flat and toneless. There is always the chance that Simon is trapped in the mildest of continuous nightmares. The little boy is all-knowing in his ignorance and proves a problem for the hapless teacher, who insists that he is dispatched to a special school.
The holy-family-in-flight motif in the concluding pages is more likely to irritate than amuse. The most interesting aspect is that far from being either a parable or a parody of the messiah’s early years, this peculiar, half-hearted work emerges as a parody of the great Coetzee’s considerable stylistic and philosophical vision – a very serious development indeed.