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 having committed no crime. These works, published during the years of apartheid, cannot but be read as a reflection of that regime of terror, although neither offers an easy political lesson. “Did you not notice how, whenever I tried to pin you down, you slipped away?” the medical officer in Michael K laments.
Coetzee’s later books have explored the after-effects of apartheid even as his main preoccupation has shifted to different injustices—most notably the cruelty of humans to animals, with occasional forays into global politics. In Disgrace, for which Coetzee won his second Booker Prize in 1999 (the first was for Michael K), the middle-aged professor David Lurie is forced to resign after being caught in an affair with a student. He goes to stay with his daughter Lucy in the countryside, where the two of them are the victims of a brutal attack by a group of young African men. He is bewildered by Lucy’s refusal to tell the police the details of her assault (she was raped) and her lack of interest in prosecuting the criminals. She withdraws into her own world, leaving him to fill his days by volunteering at the local animal shelter, a place of “last resort” where the only way to heal is to kill. “This is the only life there is. Which we share with animals,” Lucy tells her father early in the novel. The question of whether we must meet the same fate is left unanswered.
Coetzee’s vision, it should be clear, is deeply moral. It is not, however, an explicitly religious vision: God plays no obvious role in his scenarios of the inhumanities we perpetrate against man and beast. So the apparently unironic title of the new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, comes as a shock. But it is soon evident that this book—deeply absorbing and uncanny, but even more opaque than what we have come to expect from this writer—is no Nativity story. What it has to do with Jesus is Coetzee’s latest unanswered question.
A man and a boy have arrived in a city called Novilla. We are told nothing of its location except that the residents speak Spanish. The two are unrelated; they met aboard the ship that brought them to this new world. During the journey, the boy lost a letter he had with him that presumably identified his parents. Now the man has become his de facto guardian, resolving to find the boy’s mother. Their names—given to them by the authorities upon their arrival—are Simón and David, but more often they are simply called “man” and “boy.”
Where have they come from, and what happened that caused them to lose every-thing, even their identities? The novel explains that new arrivals at Novilla are “washed clean by the passage here,” untroubled by memories of their previous lives. (Coetzee has long been fascinated by the notion of the castaway, a man washed up on a foreign shore, like Robinson Crusoe, with nothing to identify who he is or where he has come from.) “What are we here for?” David asks Simón early on. Simón ignores the philosophical implications of the question. “We are here for the same reason everyone else is. We have been given a chance to live and we have accepted that chance… There is nowhere else to be but here.”
Life in Novilla is straightforward, if not exactly easy. Simón and David are given an apartment and an allowance. Simón finds employment on the docks as a stevedore, where he enjoys the camaraderie of his fellow workers. A detached benevolence characterises all personal affairs. On the first day, when Simón has no money for food, the foreman offers him the contents of his own pocket. Over lunch, the stevedores debate philosophical questions, and in the evenings they gather at the Institute, which offers free classes in everything from Spanish to drawing. A music teacher named Elena offers David free lessons. “There are more important things than money,” she tells Simón. “Music, yes, but also how one lives.”
Are they in paradise—or hell? There is something creepy about all this placidity. It is as if everyone has been lobotomised. When Simón and Elena begin sleeping together, they “do the business of sex.” Blandness pervades everything: even the local food is unseasoned. But the residents of Novilla are satisfied, or seem to be, with exactly what they have. Only Simón wants more. He cannot tolerate the absence of strong feeling—the stevedores’ lack of ambition, Elena’s matter-of-fact approach to sexual relations, even the lack of pleasure to be taken in eating. This is more than just the old struggle between the body and the head, from which virtually all of Coetzee’s male protagonists suffer. When Simón complains that he is continually hungry, it is because he cannot fill his soul—with work, with thought, with love.
Coetzee’s novels have often showed more of an interest in philosophical problems than in emotional ones; a certain coldness pervades them. This is a writer who is deeply, relentlessly serious. A profile that appeared in the New Statesman some years ago noted his “almost monkish self-discipline and dedication” and cited a colleague of over a decade who “claims to have seen him laugh just once.” It is something of a relief, then, to discover real humour in this novel. Part of Simón’s frustration in Novilla is that no one seems to get his jokes; everything he says is taken at face value. Perhaps Coetzee feels the same.
To be sure, the humour in this novel tends to be of the existential variety. At one point Simón visits the local bordello, Salón Confort, where he must fill out an application, in which he goes on at length describing the attributes he desires in a “therapist,” the duration of their meetings and so on. The acceptance letter never arrives, and he rues his honesty on the form. “Someone young and pretty,” he wishes he had written, “thirty minutes will do.”
But the novel seems to be utterly serious in its insistence that David is a kind of Jesus figure. One day Simón and David go on a hike that leads them to a gated man-sion. Behind the fence, a woman is playing tennis. When Simón sees her, he is convinced that she is David’s mother, via a kind of immaculate conception. (Her name happens to be Inés—meaning “pure, holy, chaste.”) And the woman consents. She moves into Simón’s apartment and accepts David as her son.
The symbolic evidence continues to mount. David’s best friend is named Fidel, “faith.” (Fidel’s mother is Elena, “light.”) After Inés tells David a story about a son who sacrifices himself for his mother, he becomes obsessed with it. He refuses to believe in the concept of infinity, and insists to Simón that he can speak in his own language. “He looks into the boy’s eyes. For the briefest of moments he sees something there. He has no name for it. It is like… Like a fish that wriggles loose as you try to grasp it. But not like a fish—no, like like a fish. Or like like like a fish.” When a teacher tells him to write “I must tell the truth” on the blackboard, he writes instead, “I am the truth.”
But the meaning of all this is not at all obvious. If the boy is a saviour, what does he offer salvation from? In Disgrace, David Lurie—he and the boy share that biblically loaded name—muses, as he prepares euthanised dogs for cremation, that “he may not be their saviour, but he is prepared to take care of them once they are unable, utterly unable, to take care of themselves.” He cannot save the dogs from death, but he can ease their passage into it. Simón has complained that his life is “not enough… I wish someone, some saviour, would descend from the skies and wave a magic wand and say, Behold, read this book and all your questions will be answered. Or, Behold, here is an entirely new life for you.” But as far as the novel is concerned, he is already living a new life. Simón seems to be the only one who cannot abide the death-in-life conditions in Novilla: bloodless, passionless, without history or promise of future.
I couldn’t help imagining how the experience of reading this book would have been different if it only had a different title, one of Coetzee’s usual abstractions: A New Life, say. But the imposition of Jesus wrenches the book beyond obliqueness into a symbolic universe where it does not quite seem to fit. One tries to pin it down, and it slips away, like a fish. Or like like a fish.
In the years since apartheid’s end, the South African writers who came up from within it have begun to direct their attention to other subjects. Some, such as André Brink, have turned their gaze inward on the history of their country; others have leaned out into the world at large. Coetzee is in the second category. In recent years his writing has attended, often polemically, to the major political issues of the 21st century: the war in Iraq, Guantánamo, the corruption of American power.
In his 2007 novel, Diary of a Bad Year, which incorporates essays on contemporary politics written by a Coetzee-like figure, the writer compares the situation of Americans during the Bush years to the shame white South Africans feel for “the crimes that were committed in their name.” That shame, of course, is what animated Coetzee’s great political novels of the 1980s. But the difference is that America’s crimes were committed not only in the name of American citizens, but with the goal of keeping the world safe from militant Islam. Thus the shame that spreads in the wake of these crimes is not limited to Americans, but is a blight on all. It is not Americans alone who must save their honour in the face of torture and unjust imprisonment, but everyone. “Inasmuch as it is a world-hegemonic power, [America] is in an important sense my country too, and everyone else’s on the planet,” Coetzee wrote recently.
This remark appears in a recently published book of correspondence between Coetzee and Paul Auster (Here and Now: Letters, 2008—2011). Though the letters span the period during which Coetzee must have been working on The Childhood of Jesus, he never writes specifically about the novel. But there is a fascinating passage in which Coetzee reflects in uncharacteristically blunt terms on the nature of writing itself. The writer, he suggests, is a kind of sacrificial figure:
“There is a lot of romantic bullshit spoken about the writing life, about the despair of confronting the blank page, about the anguish of inspiration that won’t come, about unpredictable—and unreliable—fits of sleepless, fevered creation, about the nagging and unquenchable self-doubt, and so on. But it’s not entirely bullshit, is it? Writing is a matter of giving and giving and giving, without much respite. I think of the pelican that Shakespeare is so fond of, that tears open its breast in order to feed its offspring on its blood.”
But sacrifice does not always equal salvation. As a writer, Coetzee can no more absolve us of the world’s corruption than David Lurie, faced with a roomful of dogs to be euthanised, can pre-empt their fate. The dissonance of his works is a way of expressing that failure: life as a perpetual series of chords that will not resolve.