The Childhood of Jesus: For the advanced reader

J.M. Coetzee’s new novel reads like a map when you have no idea where you are, with a constant look of pure confusion on your face. The book is a bit strange.

J.M. Coetzee’s new novel reads like a map when you have no idea where you are, with a constant look of pure confusion on your face. The book is a bit strange. Wait, let me put it more clearly: it’s utterly bizarre and completely incomprehensible.

It’s the story of a man who takes care of a little boy who has lost his mother. So much is certain. But everything else that happens is rather enigmatic.

First of all, you quite literally have no idea where the book takes place. As the story begins the 5-year-old David and his guardian Simon have just arrived in a foreign Spanish speaking country with some peculiar socialist tendencies and a society of emotionally blunted, but still surprisingly nice and helpful people. After some bureaucratic hassles, they are allocated accommodation and Simon even finds a job, but all the while the questions about how and why they ended up in this strange land remain unanswered.

Everyone’s memory is erased before they arrived in this country. Or, as the people like to put it themselves: ‘Washed clean of memory,’ as if it were something vile and dirty they are happy to live without. Simon on the other hand, suffers from the persistent “shadows” of his memories that keep taunting him. He is the only one who raises questions about the very simple life of the people in this country, which seems deprived of all forms of excitement and meaning.

The first couple of chapters don’t contain that much philosophical discussion yet, as here Simon is still completely caught up in his quest to reunite the little David with his mother. This may seem like an impossible task when you have no memory and thus no idea what the mother might look like, but when Simon takes David for a walk through the countryside and they meet a woman meet on a tennis court, Simon just ‘knows’ this is David’s mother. This completely irrational decision, in addition to the already bizarre world that Coetzee describes, makes you, as the reader, increasingly reluctant to go along with the storyline.

But still, with ‘The Childhood of Jesus’, it ones again becomes clear why the hugely acclaimed Coetzee, who not only won the Man Booker Prize twice but also won a Nobel Prize in literature, is such an exceptional literary talent. Even in this bizarre story, his unforced way of writing triggers the readers’ imagination to such an extent that every scene starts to feel familiar and real. The characters, however weird they sometimes may be, are brought to live by Coetzee’s simple use of words, and you can’t help but love them all.  

A warning may be in place. “The Childhood of Jesus” is in no way a biographical narrative of Jesus’ childhood. Of course Coetzee didn’t pick this title randomly. There is definitely an allegorical link with the life of this Biblical figure hidden in the story. Sometimes, it feels like you can almost grasp it, but ultimately Coetzee keeps this deeper layer of meaning meticulously shrouded in thick fog.

The book and its mysterious link to the life of Jesus provides a perfect research subject for a PhD in literature, but for all of us common readers, who simply read for pleasure, the vague ambiguities and unanswered questions that this book raises are above all awfully annoying.

What do you think? Have you read The Childhood of Jesus? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.