Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Childhood of Jesus

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee (Viking, $26.95, September 2013) -- Nobel-prize winner J.M. Coetzee's latest novel reads like that middle-school riddle that you never quite grabbed ahold of. Told largely through dialogue, the story is anything but straightforward. Large portions of the book are assigned to dialogues seemingly lifted right out of Plato ("Ideas are everywhere," he writes towards the beginning of the book. "The universe is instinct with them. Without them there would be no universe, for there would be no being.") Other sections wander almost heroically into the dreamy hinterlands (i.e. Purgatory) we visited in that other Coetzee masterpiece, Elizabeth Costello, before Coetzee's authorial restraint pulls them back. But this novel is even stranger. Why? Because this novel exists nowhere.

Let me explain. It begins with the arrival of a man (Simon) and a boy (David) to an unknown Spanish speaking country from some sort of refugee camp called Belstar. We do not know where they are, where they are from, or why they've been forced into this new world. Descriptors leak out of conversations slowly, revealing little more than the strange relationship between David and Simon and the inhumanly austere (and hyper-logical) character of those living in our heroes new land. (It turns out David is not Simon's son but a self-appointed guardian who feels bound to find the boy's mother, despite never having seen her or knowing her name. They boy doesn't recall her either.) As something resembling a story ensues, we find that everything in Coetzee's novel out of balance. Never can we be sure what universe this story is occurring in, just as we can never be sure of its time frame or the parameters of its (at least partially) intended allegory of Jesus's childhood. Everything is just beyond us. But don't get me wrong: this doesn't make The Childhood of Jesus infuriating or unreadable. These are the qualities that have always illuminated Coetzee's work: the tug between restraint of his prose and the philosophical, moral, metafictional, and even physical waywardness his stories invoke. Like the majority of his novels, this one is also worth reading. It will leave you with fragments and strands that point towards truths but come nowhere near explaining them outright; in Coetzee's hands this is always a good thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment