Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Two refugees make their way in a strange land

David, a five year old boy, and Simon, an older man, disembark into a new country, memories washed clean. Simon has taken charge of David after he was separated from his mother. Simon’s mission is to find her, though neither Simon or the boy know her name or what she looks like. After a rough start, the two make their way in their new country, a strangely passionless place, with plenty of bread but little meat. Free soccer tickets but plodding conversations devoid of irony. Competence is not a priority in this land and frail Simon gets an unlikely job as a stevedore, though it doesn’t really matter how little grain he unloads – the grain sits and rots in the warehouse anyway. One day Simon encounters Ines, a spoiled young woman playing tennis with her spoiled brothers- he decides she is David’s real mother though perhaps not a biological one and after a day’s hesitation, she accepts her new role, taking the child and excessively babying him. When David runs into trouble learning at school, the government decrees he must be sent to a special institute/jail. To prevent this, the makeshift family goes on the lam.

This is a weird book, mysterious yet ultimately beautiful - a deadpan allegorical novel about people who have traded (involuntarily?) their messy human desires and passions for a calm benevolent boredom. Everyone is a refugee and no one can remember who they used to be.  People seem unconcerned about this although almost every character except Simon and David and Ines and Ines’s boyfriend, a quasi criminal, have a drippy personality. Eventually these incurious dogooders irritate Simon with their passivity. He wants to fuck a willing woman and eat a piece of bloody steak and nobody understands why. Or pretends not to understand. For a while the scenes get repetitive with a sort of badabump comic rhythm as Simon interrogates these noodleheads about their missing desires with the same maddening results. We get it. Everyone is a boring passionless drip but in this world there are no murders. Perhaps no evil.

The story is somewhat dull until David, the bright yet educationally delayed boy suddenly learns to read overnight. He causes problems at school by not conforming and as the authorities come to ship him off to reform school, the “parents” rebel. A concept unheard of in this land. It is here that the story gets interesting.

 In the novel, workaday problems somehow glow with meaning – the stopped up toilet, the child with the learning disability, the firecracker accident. I have no idea what the title was about although it tilted my mind to see every symbol as being associated with the New Testament. What is a parallel are the two adults who are charged with parenting a very unusual child, a magical child. And Der Erlkonig -- what’s that all about? And the deliberate mistakes about Der Erlkonig?

 Was this the Island of Death? It was a little frustrating reading this novel – you felt the clues abounding and the little threads you were supposed to pull – but will there be more clarity once the threads are pulled? Ultimately thought provoking.

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