With deliberate sparseness, Coetzee concocts a dreamlike tale of a ridiculous mission in The Childhood of Jesus. Simón and David are newcomers to a vaguely socialist country where no one can recall their original birthdate, age or name. They are issued new ones, along with free food, lodging, clothing and healthcare, although Simón soon tires of the bean paste and dry bread that passes as everyday fare. To pass the time and buy a few luxuries Simón finds work as a stevedore, despite his lack of physical prowess. No one else seems to remember or miss any trappings of private commerce, religion, desire, ambition or humor, increasing Simón’s frustrated attempts to navigate the society around him.
The Childhood of Jesusis a dystopian novel…or is it? Set in no particular time or place, the middle-aged Simón meets a young boy named David, and sets about trying to reunite him with his mother. Both are without their memories, as are all citizens in the new country they now reside in. Everyone amiably conforms to standards of bland acceptance, despite no threat of any rebels being punished by their benign and benevolent government, and the pair struggle to adapt to this bizarre, subdued world. Can Simón locate David’s mother without any real memories or knowledge of her?
My Favorite Character
Simón is plagued by curiosity and yearning, but also a strange sort of passivity; making him a fascinating and contradictory character.
Words to Live By
Alvaro does not trade in irony. Nor does Elena. Elena is an intelligent woman but she does not see any doubleness in the world, any difference between the way things seem and the way things are. An intelligent woman and an admirable woman too, who out of the most exiguous of materials – seamstressing, music lessons, household chores – has put together a new life, a life from which she claims – with justice? – that nothing is missing. It is the same with Alvaro and the stevedores: they have no secret yearnings he can detect, no hankerings after another kind of life. Only he is the exception, the dissatisfied one, the misfit. What is wrong with him? Is it, as Elena says, just the old way of thinking and feeling that has not yet died in him, but kicks and shudders in its last throes?
Fans of Beckett, Don Quixote, and quiet contemplation on family, enlightenment and desire.
The Childhood of Jesus is a quietly unsettling and muted read, where the absence of Coetzee’s usual rich lyricism acts as a relief picture, revealing starkly contrasting themes through his postmodern prose. Peaks of emotional intensity are curiously built around Coetzee’s own passions for sports and animal rights. However, the author leaves much to ponder: Is David the child Jesus, and Simón Joseph? Is this a fable, farce, or lecture that Coetzee is delivering? This is a paradoxical and challenging book that will engage you long after you have finished reading it.
You can find The Childhood of Jesus at the Bellingham Public Library.