review of The Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee

An extract from Judith’s A Common Reader, which is available postfree for $10:

Click here to order (for some reason right now the price given on this link is $15. Never fear, you will be charged $10!)

The entire work is a journey into the books of Coetzee and the consequent impact on the author. Or, as Judith put it in flippant moment:

This discursive account of a literary pilgrimage in search of J.M. Coetzee is a remarkable addition to the ‘immersion memoir’ genre, this time not from the American deep south, but from the even deeper south of Australia. The literature of quest arrives in Adelaide, with no rings attached.

Last year I discovered that reading Coetzee is an act of faith. Read confidently and trust. It will all work out in the end. Here, once again, Coetzee is writing about almost everything that matters to him, and one of those things is the telling of stories; humans are the animals which tell their own stories. We all need to create our own stories and having done so are faced with the perpetual need to keep reinventing them to the end of our days. Perhaps this is why we find religions so seductive: written by Masters, the meanings are embodied in the narratives. I have no desire to resist this latest novel by J.M. Coetzee, this parable for Post-Christians.

From the indifferent to the well-disposed, the denizens of the country in which Simon, with small boy David in tow, arrives as a refugee, are curiously bland and passionless, cleansed of memory; the required reinvention of personality has caused a diminution. Although narrated in the third person it is from the viewpoint of Simon that this story is told, a wise choice. Simon is a man of substance in an insubstantial world; he has nothing, but he is something, a man with conviction. He is going to re-unite David with his mother; he goes about this with a dream-like intensity.

There is often an element of enchantment in Coetzee’s novels. Even the most realistic novel is not reality, but an image serving the purpose of the writer. The novelist who eschews this reality and writes a novel which is manifestly fantastic runs the risk of losing meanings unless the inspiration is so deep that the narrative flows from sources so profound as to be atavistic. This happens in The Childhood of Jesus. At times, myth and folk tale tapestry surface moments of some humour. Simon, so prosaic, so worthy, so sure of his own mission, so convinced and so convincing, is frustrated by the quixotic boy, David (not his real name), who knows that he is the third brother. Simon, not altogether patiently, points out that he can never be anything other than a first-born. To Simon this is stubbornness; to the unreal world this indicates Special Needs, a kind of dyslexia with numbers. Coetzee has a lot of fun with numbers, fun in triplicate you might say.

One of the endearing qualities of Coetzee’s work is the respect that is paid to the great writers of our past. Here Cervantes receives due homage. Simon attempts to teach David to read using An Illustrated Children’s Don Quixote. David recognises Don Quixote as one of his own. Simon takes on the role of Sancho, who knows a windmill when he sees one. In another thread in the narrative David is more trickster than saint: he knows about sorceresses, he wants to be a magician, he wants to be invisible. One mentor is Simon, but David is equally susceptible to the miscreant Daga, mercurial, violent, destructive of the social order, contemptuous of the social contract. Daga is one of David’s own, too. Follow this thread to leave the realms of romance for the picaresque, that other great Spanish tradition.

Uneasily, Simon does his best, dutifully, optimistically, to forge on. A motley carload – mother Ines, the son David, the hitchhiker Juan, the dog – driven by Simon, arrives in Estrellita. We are ‘looking for somewhere to stay, to start our new life’. Is this a novel about refugees? Well, yes, but we are all in the same boat.

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