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J M Coetzee: The Childhood of Jesus

This novel has caused a certain amount of confusion. Firstly, whatever it is about, it is not about the childhood of Jesus, except in a very generalised, somewhat allegorical sense. Secondly, the cover of the UK edition shows a woman and two men from an old (1920s?) photograph, who are fairly affluent and in a garden (see my blog post for the photo). There is no scene like this in the book, except, perhaps, for a scene where Inés and her brothers are playing tennis in the garden of La Residencia but the three in the photo do not look as if they are about to play tennis. (Interestingly the cover of the Australian edition shows a young boy in dark glasses with light reflecting in both lens, a scene which does happen but only towards the very end of the book.) Of course, both these two mysteries indicate that the plot of the book itself is something of a mystery.

The story starts with David, a five year old boy, and Simón, a forty-five year old man. These ages are what the immigration authorities determine is their age, as neither knows his real age. Both have arrived in a new country – we never know its name – at the port of Belstar (which makes me think of Bethlehem, hence the Jesus connection). One key feature of all people who arrive at Belstar is that their memory seems to have been wiped. They forget everything about their past, including their age and names (David and Simón are names given to them by the immigration authorities). In addition, once they have arrived at Belstar they cannot return to the country they came from, wherever that may be. Other features of this country is that it is Spanish-speaking – Simón seems to pick it up remarkably quickly without any lessons – though we do not know their previous mother tongues, there seem to be very few people married or, indeed, involved in a current relationship and it seems to be a genuinely benign if mildly (but not excessively) bureaucratic country.

David and Simón had met on the boat coming over. David had a letter in a pouch around his neck, which explained who he was and who his parents were. He lost the letter and it was Simón who helped him (unsuccessfully) to look for it. Since then, Simón has acted as something of a father for him, though they actually play around with his real role, variously calling him godfather or uncle. On arrival at Belstar they were temporarily in a camp but have now been transferred to Novilla, the capital city of the country. They struggle with finding accommodation, not just because of bureaucracy but because of mild incompetence, which could exist anywhere. Eventually, they do find accommodation and Simón gets a job unloading sacks of grain at the port. It seems that there is nothing else unloaded at the port, at least nothing Simón can see, and bread seems to be a staple of the populace, with Simón finding it difficult to find any other sort of food.

Simón is determined to find David’s mother and, eventually, he does or rather, he finds a mother for David who clearly is not his real mother but a young woman, Inés, who lives with her two brothers in a kind of resort called La Residencia. Children are not allowed so Simón gives up his flat to her and sleeps in a shed near the dock. The difficult relationship between Simón and Inés is a key part of the book. Both try to act as parents to David but disagree on how he should be brought up. Both make it very clear that, despite the fact that Inés wants a child of her own, there is to be no sexual relationship between the two. David’s has problems at fitting in, partially because of his wild imagination, boosted by a reading of a child’s version of Don Quixote. (Coetzee names Benengeli as the author of the book, not Cervantes. Benengeli is the fictional author Cervantes names as the chronicler of Don Quixote’s adventures.) The pair struggle with David but also with the authorities who, not surprisingly, think that David should have a proper education.

Is David meant to be Jesus, a child who does not fit in but sees things others do not, as David does? It is not clear and probably does not matter. David does have flights of fancy and invents his own language and his own world but this is not uncommon in children, particularly only children or those separated from their biological parents. Episodes from the life of Jesus do occur, such as an equivalent of the Flight to Egypt, but Coetzee does not make anything of these episodes and we are left to draw our own conclusions. In short, the book should be taken on its own merits and not as an allegory of the Jesus story or a modern-day version of it. As always with Coetzee, it is a fascinating novel and one that is different from the mainstream and, while not his greatest book, certainly one worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Harvill Secker