29 April, 2013Issue 22.1FictionLiteratureReligion

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Tests of Faith

David Sergeant

Childhood of JesusJ. M. Coetzee
The Childhood of Jesus
Harvill Secker
288 pages
ISBN 1846557267


Oh Lord, let me not be a misplaced toad bestower. So might run the critic’s prayer, as they nervously begin writing about the latest novel from two-time Booker Prize winner and Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee. Oh let me not be like that reviewer of Eliot’s Waste Land—the one who dismissed it with a nicely turned phrase (“the borrowed jewels he has set in its head do not make Mr. Eliot’s toad the more prepossessing”) which is now only quoted to show just how stupidly obtuse early readers of an original work can be. The book review pages in recent weeks have offered some pleasantly concordant variations on the act of hedging one’s bets, as reviewers across the land attempt to deliver their verdict on The Childhood of Jesus. While copy-filling paraphrase and professions of bafflement have dominated, not many reviewers have actually come out and said the book is bad, as such—no-one wants a toad on their hands. Even the negative review in The Scotsman ends on a get-out clause: “Since it’s by Coetzee, it can’t – surely? – be as dull and pointless as it seems. Or can it?” So, the question facing us: to toad or not to toad?

But first, a synopsis—though for reasons that will quickly become apparent, trying to summarise this novel is a bit like trying to wrestle two snakes with one hand. The Childhood of Jesus follows a man and boy who have arrived in a new (fictional) country. They have been given new names, taught Spanish, and are housed. The man, Sim√≥n, gets a job on the docks; his fellow workers are friendly. He is searching for the mother of the child in his care, David, and on a trip into the countryside he suddenly believes that he has found her—for no rational reason we can discern—and hands the child over to this woman, Inés. She takes the child, though seems to be a slightly alarming, infantilising mother. Sim√≥n continues to try and have a bearing on the child’s upbringing, while also working and engaging in philosophical discussions with other characters. The child goes to school, but is a disruptive, noncompliant presence, and the authorities determine that he must be sent to a distant facility, appropriate to unusual children. Sim√≥n and Inés instead flee with the child in a car, into the empty landscape beyond the city.

What this summary cannot encompass is the correspondences with the story of Jesus which litter the novel, of varying degrees of opacity—for which we are cued to look, of course, by that blandly uncompromising title. To take one example: towards the end of the novel the (holy?) “family” are passing through the desert (well, “rolling scrubland”), when they pick up a smelly hitchhiker called Juan, a printer looking for work (John the Baptist!). The (holy?) “family” are travelling to see a doctor, and Juan has the choice of leaving them at this point, but instead stays—though at the doctor’s door he says he’ll go to look for some breakfast:

‘No, you mustn’t go,’ says the boy. ‘You will get lost.’
‘I won’t get lost,’ says Juan. His hand is on the doorknob.
‘Stay, I command you!’ the boy barks out.
‘David!’ he, Sim√≥n, reproves the child. ‘What has got into you this morning? You don’t speak to a stranger like that.’
‘He is not a stranger. And don’t call me David.’
‘What must I call you then?’
‘You must call me by my real name.’
‘And what may that be?’
The boy is silent.

He will get lost! Like, you know, a lost soul: he’ll be damned! He has been commanded, as Jesus would command; and has he not chosen to stay with them? And is he not a familiar, rather than a stranger? Except that a more convincing reason for his staying might be that he needs a lift to the next town and doesn’t want to lose his ride. And as Sim√≥n’s reproof suggests, this “command” might just be the act of a naughty, wilful child; just as the assertions about stranger and name might be the automatic, contrarian arguings of such a child.

And so it is with many of the Biblical parallels which glimmer through the novel, particularly in the assertions of the child. Some of these turn out to be true: he can read and write, as he claimed. But as the prosaically realist characters that populate the novel beyond its centre point out, maybe he’s just a very intelligent child. Some of the assertions turn out to be definitively false: the dead horse which the child tries to resurrect stays resolutely dead. The boy’s words and actions might shadow the story of Jesus, but they also appear to be the wilful behaviour of a spoilt—but problematically gifted—child. We are given such explanations by those other characters. We see him being spoiled. We never actually see any of the fantastic, “magic” events—the flying, the walking through barbed wire—which he supposedly experiences. When questioned hard on such matters, he often shuts down into silence—as children often do, in a sulk. In everyday life we would surely dismiss such behaviour as the actions of that spoilt but gifted child. Except—except—

Well, it is The Childhood of Jesus, isn’t it? And so we constantly spend our time looking for ways to hammer the narrative into what we’ve been told—by the title—that it actually is; and, what’s more, into the kind of grandly meaningful novel we might expect from a Nobel Prize winner, rather than the almost offensively flimsy narration we otherwise possess. And so Coetzee exposes how stories—and how culturally reified stories in particular—still condition and direct us. All the erratic actions of the child and his attendants are obviously explicable as the kind of mutually reinforcing delusions common to the human race—but what if we turn out to be wrong? What if Coetzee later comes out and confirms it as allegory? And so the fear of the author acts something like the fear of God: we back away from unequivocally denying his stated intention (the title!) because we’re scared of his possible future judgement. As readers, like believers, we are scared of getting it wrong. And also like believers we want more: the allegorical dimension, the higher purpose. We thought we were secular, disillusioned, versed in suspicious postmodern reading? Not so, the novel tells us: see, how you won’t rest contented with what’s in front of you, the evidence of your own eyes.

—is one way of reading the book. But, on the other hand, is such a scrupulous weighing of evidence really the way to approach the son of God? Coetzee revivifies the leap of faith that Jesus’s first followers had to make, shearing away the complacency with which the story is normally regarded. Indeed, forget those first disciples: what would we do with another son of God in our midst? We’d apply to him our familiar tools—reason, logic, the systematising intellect (the novel is much concerned with philosophy and number)—but we would be applying them to the one entity which they cannot encompass. If we want to accept this narrative as “the childhood of Jesus” we have to plug the incidents into a different kind of understanding. The oddness of the child then becomes ineffable: his sudden acquisition of literacy, his metaphysically destabilising observations. The main character, Sim√≥n, at times seems to credit the child with such distinction, as when he looks into the boy’s eyes and “for the briefest of moments […] sees something there” which confounds his ability to render it in language, leaving him dizzy. In this reading the child might be seen as mysteriously accruing aspects of the Bible story to himself, like a counter-narrator secreted and at siege within the main, realist narration.

Or, to put it another way, like Don Quixote. This is the story Sim√≥n reads to the child, who henceforward refuses to accept Quixote’s fantasies as fantasies—refuses to accept, for that matter, that Quixote does not exist. Elsewhere, Coetzee has described Quixote as “the source-book for all writers of fiction. Reminds us how old most of our bright new ideas are”. Here the Quixote reminds us that all these questions of belief are bound up with the nature of fiction—and, more particularly, with the (virgin?) birth of realism. Only by fusing those ideas with the story of Jesus, Coetzee makes them freshly, invigoratingly dangerous. In Don Quixote, we easily credit Sancho Panza’s earthy debunking of his master’s delusional adventures in a realist world; in Coetzee’s novel, such non-realist seeing becomes fused with a narrative less easy to dismiss, if only because of the centuries of thought, belief, and practice bound up with it.

Alternatively, in other formulations of this debate, we always end up crediting the imagination, as a positive force compared to a humdrum alternative. This is the Romantic slant. And yet the everyday world of The Childhood of Jesus is actually rather appealing in many ways. It might be austere and frugal but no-one starves, the sick are cared for, co-workers are kind, state officials are intrusive but well-intentioned. It might appear at first to be a world of refugees (but aren’t we all? O, allegory!), but more closely resembles a country created by a panel of Guardian readers. How would the child’s mode of being alter this existence? A child who is excitedly attracted by the rakishly violent Daga, a man with a taste for theft, booze, and breasts? “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). Or—a Daga? Our liminal main character Sim√≥n might crave meat and passion and feel stifled by the rather smug order all around him; however, he also tries to argue reasonably and explain the world rationally to the child. The novel gestates two fictional modes, two ways of understanding: and these twins are fighting within its stomach.

And when phrased like this it might seem obvious which one we’d choose to raise as our heir. Of course we’ll take the realistic kindness over the unverified alterity, thank you very much, as we know very well where utopian fantasies and messianic visions lead. But the novel already has us here, and not just because our hunger for something more than realism constantly has us trying to substantiate the narrative as The Childhood of Jesus. To read the novel at all is constantly to accept what is flagrantly impossible. For instance, as when a poem in German is quoted and then described, without demur from anyone, as being in English. Now, of course we don’t accept this as true, but we go on reading the novel all the same, and trying to find within it some kind of answer (“Since it’s by Coetzee, it can’t—surely?—be as dull and pointless as it seems. Or can it?”)—which is, of course, what we do all the time, with all stories, even the most grimly and grimily realist. Only Coetzee evades the straightforward endorsement of what is always blandly endorsed at this moment—fiction, creativity—by placing it in harness with other kinds of belief that are more electrically dangerous and consequential. What is at stake here, what is (truly) involved in giving ourselves over to what cannot be seen, or proved, or systematised like number? Is it really so innocent, so tame, so easy? But then again, are we prepared to do without it? Coetzee strops his fiction to a razor’s edge: and we don’t know for what purpose that glittering blade is coming.

David Sergeant is a Junior Research Fellow at Somerville College, Oxford. He also writes poetry.