P D Dawson
The Childhood of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee (Book Review)
'In the early hours he wakes up, stiff, aching with cold. Anger wells up in him. Why this pointless misery?'
It would be wise to point out from the outset that the title of this book is merely to set a feeling and make a bridge of atmosphere in the story that follows, but that it is not really a story about the childhood of Jesus. One can however make many allegorical similarities along the way of the boy’s journey, from not being accepted because of his belief that he is special, to the abundance of faith he has in magic.
David is the name given to the five-year-old boy as he arrives by boat on a new land which relies on the rules and discourse of its society, but he arrives motherless and is temporarily taken under the wing of Simón who was travelling on the same ship, and who vows to look after the boy until he finds his mother. His character is wrapped up in the idea of fate and that he will know David's mother when he sets eyes upon her, but as he enters the new world with its unfamiliar Spanish tongue and strange rules, he finds that not everyone believes in fate as he does, and the decisions he makes for the boy are not always seen as the right ones by the people he befriends along the way.
Simón knows however that he needs to find work, and after a rather complicated search to find a place for he and the boy to live in Novilla, he must then find work, which he finds in a grain wharf down on the docklands shifting sacks of heavy backbreaking grain. Simón asks questions that are unfamiliar and unnecessary to the people who have already made a life there, for they have chosen to live and not to ask questions. Simón therefore brings a philosophical and smart mind to the people, but he is often shut down for choosing to complicate the way they do things. He is annoyed by their attitude and doesn’t want to just get by, and to just be satisfied, but he can’t deny their kindness and hospitality, or that they appear to be happy in their lives. He wonders therefore if it is he who has the wrong attitude and decides to try and accept things for how they are. He however longs for the pleasures of the flesh, and tries to find out if a woman called Elena wants that too. She however at first declines, and the only thing that keeps them together is the friendship that David makes with her son Fidel. Simón is guilty of using this friendship to get closer to Elena, and in the end she relents to him and agrees to have sex, but she doesn’t enjoy it or seem to take any pleasure from their closeness.
The new country Simón and David have entered, or at least the people in Novilla, have little desire to change, or to be changed. But Simón brings with him a desire for something more than bread, to be satisfied by more exotic food, perhaps an allegory for the desire for sin, yet he, along with the boy, learn that it’s the simple things in life that never fail to nourish the soul. And on the docklands he becomes friendly with Álvaro who oversees the other stevedores and who is kind and looks out for the boy David and plays chess with him as Simón does the very physical job of loading bags onto the ship and negotiating the tricky final ramp.
But Simón’s real quest, the one from which he cannot seem to rest, is to find the boy his mother. He meets a lady called Inés, and from the moment he sees her he is sure she is David’s mother. From this point in the book the focus changes from what Simón wants and focuses more on the wants of the boy. David ends up living alone with Inés and Simón starts to feel left out of the boy’s life. From there a complicated relationship ensues with Inés and the interests of young David are immediately changed when he turns six and has to attend school. The boy is seen as special, but he is too special to fit in class and so Simón and Inés are told he must be taken away to a boarding school for special children. David entering the real world outside the protection of his makeshift parents highlights the boy’s very unique and differing way of seeing the world, where two plus two doesn’t necessarily make four.
The Childhood of Jesus is a very simple read, but there are endless depths beneath its surface. For example, Coetzee’s prose is often wrapped up in allegory, and even the simple wishes and wants of the young boy David, seem to serve a dual purpose of illuminating the character of the boy himself, and also of those around him in their attempts to rebuke his ways and make him see the way the world really is. But ultimately the subtle truth is that the boy’s unique view of life changes them more than they can ever hope to change him.
J. M. Coetzee is an endlessly readable author who manages to weave the complexity of his characters into an organically evolving world that is so strong and well crafted, that at times his fiction seems real.