December 6, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The Childhood of Jesus

By |2018-03-21T18:54:11+01:00March 27th, 2013|Recent Reviews|

By J.M. Coetzee

Harvill Secker, 2013. 277 pages.


iddle-aged Simón arrives by sea at a relocation center in a Spanish-speaking state with a five-year-old boy in tow. The two became companions after David was somehow separated from his mother, a letter explaining his background lost in the ordeal of their refugee passage. Now, Simón is David’s guardian of a sort, a “godfather” in a strange land that has the feel of an Orwellian Cuba. Simón, who has learned Spanish but whose mother tongue is never named, wants to track down David’s mother, and inexplicably believes he’s found her in a dim socialite named Inés, who agrees to play the role. Inés, it would seem, is a virgin.

But what of David, a thumb-sucking little boy who likes ice cream, wants to be a magician and believes he can bring horses back to life, who insists he can’t read but then does, who resists arithmetic, whose notion of the universe is determinedly self-involved? Simón, who gets work on the docks, tries shaping David as a father would a son, according to rules and a logical social order. He gives him “Don Quixote” to help the boy distinguish between fact and fable, a separation the boy chafes at.

But Simón also struggles. This strange new country is too literal for him. It resists romantic love and daydreaming. It is in fact the opposite of David, whose infantile rule-breaking gradually acquires a mystical perspective to which the otherwise lucid Simón becomes attached. The same goes for Inés, who, while uninterested in Simón, is fiercely devoted to her “imposed” son.

Coetzee has always like both riddles and allegories, and this is yet another master-class in the simple but subtle advancing of both. It is a hopeful story about ties that bind and the potential for the existence of a natural law free of square roots. It is also a Joseph and Mary allegory that permits a debate between belief and logic free of biblical paperweights.

“The life I have is not enough for me,” says Simón, craving the existence of a book that might help give life a deeper purpose, a sense of “higher imperatives.” But there is no such book. Instead there’s David: a child whose mischief is hypnotically pure, an unformed Jesus with a sense of destination. Believers are those, like Simón and Inés, who come to love the boy, to hold his strangeness in esteem, to protect him against those who would “correct” his infantilism, and to hew to that which becomes, in essence, blind faith. They are the “attuned,” headed north, with David their unforeseen guide.

Few novelists can put aside the literature of dysfunction to hunt for substantive life truths: Coetzee is one.

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