The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
A compulsively readable contemporary fable, The Childhood of Jesus is an allegory about two immigrants, a boy and his guardian, and their difficulties acclimating to life in a new city.
Davíd is a precocious five-year-old who was separated from his mother while traveling by boat to a new land. Simón takes him in and vows to watch over the boy for as long as it takes to reunite them, despite not knowing anything about his mother. Davíd won’t speak of her beyond insisting that she’s not dead, but Simón doesn’t mind: he’s certain that he’ll know her when he sees her. He resists adopting any fatherly sentiment toward the boy, offering instead to discuss philosophical matters where parental guidance would have been more appropriate. After some devastating complications in their “naturalizing” (including some final nights spent outdoors) they settle in the city of Novilla. Simón works as a stevedore at the docks while Davíd learns to play chess with the dock foreman.
While spiritually-driven in its narration and in its focus on fate and lessons, and featuring some resonant moments that directly cite Christian texts (such as one of Simón’s entreats for food, insisting that “one cannot lie on bread alone”), Coetzee’s novel bears an unfortunate title that will divert many potential readers. In this novel, the words “The Childhood of Jesus” function more like a concrete title given to an abstract painting: Coetzee encourages readers to imbue Davíd and Simón’s travails (both physical and philosophical) with a Christian shimmer that may not have been apparent had the book been titled something else. Jesus himself doesn’t make a physical appearance, and anyone arguing that he does would need a handful of pages to back up that thesis. Titling the novel something like “Davíd Quixote” would have had just as powerful an allegorical effect.
Like Don Quixote (which is often mentioned in the novel), The Childhood of Jesus is episodic and boasts tightly resolved chapters that focus on a single “adventure.” In one, Davíd beats the foreman in a chess game despite recently deciding he doesn’t even like chess. In another, a new, violent dock worker appears at the ship and inadvertently teaches Davíd and Simón about how some people can secure respect through aggression. And in one, they pass by Inés, and although the two had never met her before, Simón is certain she’s Davíd’s “real” mother. “Please believe me –” he implores,
“please take it on faith — this is not a simple matter. The boy is without mother. What that means I cannot explain to you because I cannot explain it to myself. Yet I promise you, if you will simply say Yes, without forethought, without afterthought, all will become clear as day, or so I believe. Therefore: will you accept this child as yours?”
By passing Davíd to Inés, Coetzee moves a little closer to the story of Jesus with regards to the son of God’s virgin birth. Still, the novel lands far from its Christian mark, and perhaps veers off intentionally. Davíd grows more annoying than his is inquisitive, and his dialogue is swollen with exclamation marks and often dwells on the scatological. Simón, meanwhile, is held back amidst archaic masculinity, frequently declaring his need to “unburden [him]self.” “I am starved of beauty,” Simón writes in one scene, on his application to the local Salón Confort. “Feminine beauty. Somewhat starved. I crave beauty, which in my experience awakens awe and gratitude — gratitude at one’s great good fortune to be holding in one’s arms a beautiful woman.”
After writing this passage, Simón considers crossing it out, but decides against it. “If he is going to be judged, let it be on the movements of his heart rather than the clarity of his thoughts.” This feeling can curiously carry across the entirety of The Childhood of Jesus: it’s a book to judge by its heart, and not its clarity. With this sort of forgiving, spiritual viewpoint, it’s quite a remarkable read. There may not be a direct way to synthesize Coetzee’s compelling and timely immigrant story with the mythic canon of literature and religion, but he’s done something remarkably close and one can see the outlines of what he’s trying to achieve. When Simón offers Davíd to Inés, he explains his decision as being “a conviction, an intuition, a delusion.” Simón asks rhetorically — and we can ask Coetzee in turn — “what is the difference when it cannot be questioned?”