JM Coetzee’s new novel is a profound existential comedy. But what does it all mean?by Ruth Franklin / March 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
JM Coetzee: his novels, including the 1999 Booker Prize-winner Disgrace, are “radically simple in their language yet evade neat interpretation” © Bert Nienhuis
The Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee (Harvill Secker, £16.99)
“I am not sure he is wholly of our world,” a medical officer says of the title figure in JM Coetzee’s 1983 novel The Life and Times of Michael K. The same could be said of Coetzee himself, and the austerely bleak novels that he has been steadily turning out over a career that now spans nearly four decades. Bare and abstract, these works often take place in an unnamed, perhaps even indeterminate location, involving characters who are more like the shadow puppets of a mystery play than the fully realised psyches animated by most contemporary novelists. Radically simple in their language yet evading neat interpretation, Coetzee’s books often have the feel of allegory, though not in the classic sense in which symbols readily match up to their referents. They are, rather, like chamber works played slightly out of tune, in which the unresolved dissonance becomes an essential quality of the performance, jarring the reader out of his or her preconceptions about how fiction works.
Yet despite their otherworldly tenor, Coetzee’s novels have always seemed to be commentary on the world in which we live, though it is an oblique commentary that dances in circles around reality rather than plodding alongside it. Throughout his career, Coetzee has been preoccupied with the notion of justice—together with its dark shadow, the brutality of the powerful toward the powerless—as perhaps only a South African writer can be. His early work Waiting for the Barbarians, which appeared in 1980, told the story of a man called only “the magistrate,” an officer of an unnamed empire that is obsessed with defending itself against a tribe of barbarians native to the land, and the trouble he finds himself in after committing a gesture of humanity toward one of the despised. In Michael K, a novel that bears comparison not only to the works of Franz Kafka but also to those of Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus, the title character is living by his wits amid a raging civil war. Over and over he is picked up by the police and forced to do hard labour or confined in concentration camp-like conditions, despite…