Harvill Secker £16.99

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory