t takes a rare writer like multi-awarded J.M. Coetzee to take quite occasional hints at gospel lessons, and raise them to universal, ethical questions. In prose as clear and clean as a scoop of well water. All in his new, brilliantly disturbing fiction “The Childhood of Jesus” (Harville Secker, 2013).
Despite occasional, hit and run gospel allusions there is no biblical Jesus in this lucid parable. There is, however, the childhood of five-year-old David. One of countless global refugees from unnamed destruction. Though recognized as “special,” David gets no preferential treatment. Like all survivors, he is an “arrival,” and will eventually join an ex-nova community composed entirely of other newcomers.
Take note: these “arrivals” are people who “have accepted to live,” a definition of life rife with ambiguous menace. And a presaging of a society whose strictly defined safety nets may sour to dystopia.
The population is mysteriously voided of personal language, of family, and of homeland memories. New arrivals are assigned to start-up rehabilitation in a benevolently protective but highly regulated society.
As both unformed child, and clean slate, David should be the perfect rehab guinea pig. Or is he?
Limiting the story arc to David’s early years, and to those starting “anew,” Coetzee establishes his narrative spreadsheet. In its episodic progress through a territory of sandy waste and scattered rehab and relocation centers is a puzzle: can the human heart be programmed?
What can be changed are the emotions attached to memory. Spanish is the language of this dystopian utopia, and those who do not know it must learn it. New speakers struggle to explain themselves. No attempts at flowery speech: it’s hard enough to say what you mean. Dialogue is as basic and lucid as the narrative prose.
This is a population that has been re-formatted at point zero. The unnamed territory is located somewhere on the globe, with many ports as rehab point for “arrivals.”
With this proposition Coetzee works to define life’s eternal power of regeneration, as gradually illustrated by the ad hoc family of David: elderly Simon and childless Ines. Who will become inadvertent rebels in utopia.
The tale is seen through elderly Simon’s eyes. On their vessel taking them toward re-invented life, Simon recognizes David as a child without caretaker, and assumes the role of guardian. After rehab, the two go to a relocation center in a place called Novilla. They receive standard settlement: housing and subsistence food.
Simon finds it hard to raise a child without a family. Meeting Ines by chance, he suddenly invites her to act as David’s mother: “for every child needs a mother’s love.” Just as unexpectedly, Ines accepts. Barren, she has always desired a child.
Although voided of memory, “viejo” Simon inevitably retains character traits formed in long lifetime. He believes in an instinctive need to do “good.” He reads “Don Quixote” to David; because, despite ludicrously unsuccessful adventures, Quixote sallies forth to do good. For her part, Ines prefers to coddle David, as the infant she never had.
So we have a family of sorts – with a guardian who hopes to instruct, a mother who over-indulges, and a youngster singularly adept at command. Of striking intelligence, David teaches himself to read on adult level, and has a seemingly eccentric but oddly sophisticated concept of numbers. Lawyers, teachers, counselors recognize that David is “special.” Although his unusual intelligence and undisciplined spontaneity create impossible disturbance for his assigned “perfect” school.
David and “family” are not quite the kinds of citizens the new territory strives to form. “Washed clean of memory,” the rest of the population finds life here quite logical. Hunger is described as weakness, born of desire rather than need. Everyone – except our threesome – seems to appreciate a diet of water and bread. Individualistic emotion, thought and desire are declared foolish excess.
Yet David, Simon and Ines have listened to their hearts. And joined their lives together. Justified by no legal papers. When functionaries move David to a special needs facility, Simon and Ines lack the authority to terminate the transfer. Their desperate response suggests that personal and material salvation do not equate.
“Can’t we go back to before the boats?” David asks. Not so easy, Simon explains: “We have been given a chance to live and we have accepted. It is a great thing to live”.
But what do we mean when we talk of “living”? One of the many disturbing questions raised by Coetzee’s poignant parable on the nature of human life.