Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

The Childhood of Jesus This strange and absorbing fiction from Nobel Prize winner Coetzee has a post-apocalyptic feel. We meet a five-year-old boy, David, and a man, Simón, who have been given names as part of their relocation from where and to where, we never learn. We know only that they are refugees and that they stayed some time in a camp called Belstar where they learned Spanish in preparation for their move by boat to Novilla. People in Novilla can’t remember the past and appear to have no curiosity about it. They are kind, generous even, but appear emotionally and physically anesthetized.

The young boy David has lost his documents on the boat from Belstar so Simón determines to help him find his mother (“I will know her when I see her”). One day Simón finds a woman and offers the boy to her. She is not perfect: she has strange child-rearing techniques and is too liberal, but under the guidance of both Simón and Inès the mother, David grows a year older, learns to read, and enters school.

At this point we start to realize vivid parallels with the life of Jesus Christ as told in the Bible, for the boy begins to seem extraordinary in his grasp of or rejection of the written word, the number system, philosophical arguments, perhaps even commonly accepted ‘truth’ itself.

This slim novel demonstrates Coetzee’s mastery. The novel is both gripping and involving: who among us does not have firm child-rearing opinions? We are curious about the place David and Simón have landed and sympathize with Simón’s half-remembered passion for something outside the ordinary. The novel is almost completely dialog and yet we have a sense of the landscape, the people, and the dilemma they face. Coetzee raises important religious, philosophical, and ethical questions that have been debated over the ages but he dresses it in simple allegory rich with allusions.

From within the story we might recognize pieces of a worldview, perhaps a statement about the world today, another place where history is irrelevant.
"'I have not let go of the idea of history,' says Simón, 'the idea of change without beginning or end.' [Simón is then challenged by his workmates. Climate is acknowledged, but history is not:] 'Consider now history,' counters Eugenio. 'If history, like climate, were a higher reality, then history would have manifestations which we would be able to feel through our senses.' He looks around. 'Which of us has ever had his cap blown off by history?'"

What is Coetzee really telling us? That Jesus is a myth created by ideas, ideas from a childlike sensibility?
"‘Forgetting takes time,’ says Elena. ‘Once you have properly forgotten, your sense of insecurity will recede and everything will become much easier…Children live in the present, not the past. Why not take your lead from them? Instead of waiting to be transfigured, why not try to be like a child again?’"
Consider again Paul Murray's, author of Skippy Dies, extensive rant against today's "kidult."

Simón, the man who still remembers remembering, who remembers passion, wanting, and something more, finds himself explaining to David the meaning of a book and is caught in his own explanation: “you don’t need love if you have faith.” Ah, so.

This is a book one reads quickly and ruminates long. Remember Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil? It is an opening to the soul of an author. “Why is he continually asking himself questions instead of just living, like everyone else?”

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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