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.