Review: The Childhood of Jesus, By JM Coetzee

The Booker-winner's unsettling new parable is set in Novilla,

To open a new book is to be stranded, blinking at a new territory, new language and new people, waiting for the author to guide you in. This is also the case for Simon, a middle-aged man with a five-year-old boy in tow, who arrives in the first pages of J M Coetzee's new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, at the front desk of a hostel for the resettlement of refugees. They are in a city called Novilla. All around him are generic municipal names for places – Room C-55, Wharf 2 – and power is accorded arbitrarily to those people with the right title.

There is an initial resonance between this novel and Coetzee's 1980 book Waiting for the Barbarians, which was set in the mythical Empire, and in which the empty language of power, like the dark glasses worn by its cruel Colonel Joll character, deflected any inquisition into that power. To add to the building atmosphere of dread, Simon and the boy, David, have arrived from a camp called Belstar, prompting the thought that it may be a fictional Belsen, and that The Childhood of Jesus will be another of Coetzee's apocalyptic works.

But Novilla is a very different dystopia. It is one of contentedness: when Simon and the boy need shelter, a gentle push on the door is all that is needed for a room; needing a job, he is immediately hired as a stevedore unloading sacks of grain from a ship; the modest amount of money needed to live comes easy, and even the buses are free. No one asks where he comes from or where he is going. Man is decent to his fellow man, and all survive largely on a diet of bread and bean paste. It is a place without memories or hunger for the future. The sense of calm, furthered by Coetzee's spare prose, is very unsettling.

There is a little backstory: David and Simon have been on a boat (from where we never discover), and on it the child lost a pouch containing a piece of paper on which were the names of his parents. The older man took the abandoned child under his wing and they came, via Belstar, to Novilla, in the hope of locating the boy's mother. But David has no name for her, and Simon has no idea of her identity.

One day, once settled, the pair go exploring the city, and come across a woman called Ynes – a virgin one would think by her austere looks – on a tennis court in a smarter part of town. Convinced that she is the one, Simon persuades her to take over the raising of David, as a child needs a mother.

The question of whether David is or is not Jesus rumbles through the story. Even if the title were not enough of a signpost, the suggestions are everywhere. He is treated like a prince by his new mother, and declares he will grow up to be a life-saver, an escape artist and a magician. At one point he asks Simon: if a mother gives milk, what does a father give? A man gives blood he is told. "I am going to give blood," David replies. A teacher instructs the child to add three fishes to five, and he struggles to make only eight, but any reader with the vaguest knowledge of Christianity is willing him to perform a numerical miracle with a handful of fish.

But only to look for the religious parallels is simplistic and unrewarding. The tension in the book comes from both Simon and David's disruption of the order of Novilla, and the order of the novel's insular universe. This is not the first story in which Coetzee has used the language of mathematics, which he studied at university, to make a point. Young David will not learn his numbers in order, letting 888 follow 93, a source of great frustration for Simon who sees the infinite natural progression of numbers like a wall of bricks, each rammed against the other, security against disorder. In refusing to accept such order, the Jesus-child allows the space for fantasy; for the idea that the happy socialistic world which Simon and he and the reader inhabit is not finite.

Simon carries another struggle within him: a hunger for pleasure. His fellow refugees in Novilla lost not only their memory on arriving, but their wants for things: good food and sex in particular. Needing intimacy with a woman, he asks if there is a bordello he can visit. His friends, humble stevedores, direct him to the Salon Confort, but say that they prefer to spend their evenings in philosophy classes. And when Simon arrives at the bordello, he has to fill out compulsory application forms not only to get a woman to lie with but also a therapist to talk to, and the appointment won't be for weeks. It is a rare comic moment in the book.

These are not the horrors of Waiting for the Barbarians, this is the horror of banality, and it is apt that the denouement of The Childhood of Jesus is a flight from inertia into the chaotic hinterlands behind Novilla. And that is where the reader is abandoned at the end of the book, still trying to determine whether Coetzee has written another great allegorical piece, or something too elusive to provide satisfaction.

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