Coetzee, in his quiet, unassuming way, always challenges and in a devastating manner. With this his latest novel, he gives us an astonishing if mysterious tale, a page turner that you can gallop through waiting always for the explanation: there is none. This is Coetzee after all. I read it yesterday and spent today thinking how can I write about it; it seems almost lese majeste to try.
There is nothing subtle about the title and when on the very first page, the narrator, Simon, introduces a young boy who accompanies him, one can quickly decide this book is an allegory based on the Holy Family. But that would be too easy. Nothing is clear. Nothing is obvious. Simon and his young charge, David [House of David?] have arrived by boat in this strange country from somewhere across the seas. David has got separated from his parents and a letter he carried around his neck explaining his circumstances got lost on the ship. Simon, though not young, takes it on himself to care for him and is referred to sometimes as grandfather, sometimes as godfather or uncle. The country they have arrived in is Spanish speaking and a sort of socialist Utopia where it turns out all the inhabitants have arrived in a similar way and, in Orwellian fashion, all their memories are wiped out. They are provided with a basic flat, an allowance and Simon quickly gets a job as a stevedore unloading sacks of grain endlessly to supply the basic food of the country, bread [manna?]. There appears to be no meat or, indeed, spices. Everything is bland - food and inhabitants. Simon's workmates are an amiable bunch and, indeed, everyone in the country fosters goodwill, with passion of any description frowned on. Even sex is reduced to the necessary satisfaction of an irritating urge. In the evenings, his workmates go to the 'institute' where they attend philosophy classes which seem to centre entirely on phenomenology of a very basic kind.
Simon fits uncomfortably into this strange environment and argues continuously with everyone, including himself, most of the time in a philosophical manner and a lot of the book is taken up with these arguments, especially those he has with young David. And David is the core of the book. Though only five, he is clearly a remarkable child with knowledge beyond his years, extremely intelligent and with a very original approach to literally everything and an affinity with animals. Is he the child Jesus? That is the puzzle the reader is going to ponder for a very long time. He teaches himself to read using an ancient copy of Don Quixote - the only book Simon could find - and he writes perfectly also, both accomplishments he hides from everyone until a crisis arises. He has a curious relationship with numbers, seeing gaps in between them like there is between the stars, and he fears that numbers might fall down in these gaps. He does not fit in with his school class and when pushed by his teacher to write on the board, 'I must tell the truth', he writes 'I am the truth'. In an echo of the scriptures again, a friend of Simon's tells Simon, 'instead of waiting to be transfigured, why not try to be like a child again'.
From the beginning, it is Simon's mission to try and find David's mother for him and quite early on, and bizarrely, he arbitrarily settles on a young woman, Ines [a virgin!] who equally bizarrely agrees to be his mother, a role she adapts to with great enthusiasm. The story then evolves into Simon's relationship with Ines and David's development within the constraints of this strange country leading inevitably to a crisis the resolution of which is typical of Coetzee's calm and measured approach to story telling.
This is a book not easily forgotten chiefly because Coetzee explains nothing. But it is nonetheless beautiful and haunting. Coetzee writes a lean, spare prose, no word casually used. He gives little description of the country but the impression is of greyness and bleakness, cold at night and hot during the day. Simon find it desolate. Transport is free as are football matches, bread and apparently also the flat they are allocated. Shops seem to be rare. A sort of communist utopia then but given to us like an exquisite epic poem. It will make you think.
The Childhood of Jesus is published in Vintage pb, £8.99 [€7.76 from Book Depository.co.uk]