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.

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence