The Childhood of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee (New York: Viking, 2013. 288 pp)
John Maxwell (J. M.) Coetzee is a Nobel-Prize-winning author of South African descent. He attended St. Joseph’s College and later the University of Cape Town. He later earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. While working as an academic, Coetzee began writing novels. In his acclaimed literary career, Coetzee has won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, three CAN Prizes, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and became the first author to win two Man Booker Prizes.
A story possesses a dynamism you would never experience with a list of facts. It gives the reader an opportunity to mine the depths of the psyche. Allegory represents a particularly illustrative way of teasing out the deeper meanings in life.
J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus exhibits loads of allegory.
Across the Sea
The story surrounds two people: Simón and David.
Both have crossed the sea on a ship to a nameless, Spanish-speaking land. While on the journey, David, a young boy around 5 years old, has become separated from his family. Simón, an older man somewhere between the age of 40 and 70, takes it upon himself to reunite David with his kin.
Upon arrival, the unlikely duo encounters the strangeness of this land head-on. Everyone is too nice. Lodging holds no headaches. A job as a stevedore at the docks magically opens up. No matter the task, everyone around the pair does their best to make them feel comfortable.
“That is so bloodless. Everyone I meet is so decent, so kindly, so well-intentioned. No one swears or gets angry. No one gets drunk. No one even raises his voice. You live on a diet of bread and water and bean paste and you claim to be filled. How can that be, humanly speaking” (30)?
As Coetzee describes in the preceding quote, something is also a little off about this place. For all the goodwill everyone extends, simple human needs like protein vanish.
Even more, Simón yearns for the tangible needs every human experiences.
“Benevolence, I must tell you, is what we keep encountering here. Everyone wishes us well, everyone is ready to be kind to us. We are positively borne along on a cloud of goodwill. But it all remains a bit abstract. Can goodwill by itself satisfy our needs? Is it not in our nature to crave something more tangible” (56)?
In fact, Simón acutely feels the need for physical intimacy. Yet everyone around him doesn’t consider such desires to possess any importance.
As for David, he approaches the new land with the innocence of a child. He makes friends and engages in life with unparalleled energy.
In the time Simón can get away from work, he searches relentlessly for David’s mother.
Just in case you haven’t caught the drift yet, The Childhood of Jesus offers an allegorical take on heaven. In fact, it’s almost an anti-The Great Divorce. Coetzee successfully implements a setting in which things are as transparent as a light cloud and yet resembles the heaviness of of life. On the one side he states,
“Things do not have their due weight here: that is what he would like, in the end, to say to Elena. The music we hear lacks weight. Our lovemaking lacks weight. The food we eat, our dreary diet of bread, lacks substance—lacks the substantiality of animal flesh, with all the gravity of bloodletting and sacrifice behind it. Our very words lack weight, these Spanish words that do not come from our heart” (64-65).
Here, in addition to many places in the text, Coetzee plays with Christian tradition in order to bring forth the point about the ethereal—a sense of heaven as a place that’s not quite real.
And yet, Coetzee makes certain to point out this land offers a life where people work, recreate, and learn. At one point in response to Simón’s admonishments about the efficiency of work, a stevedore responds.
“What do you say, comrades? Do we need a grand plan, as our friend demands, or is it good enough for us to be doing our job and doing it well” (109)?
In essence, Coetzee makes a counter-cultural claim about the next life; it is physical; it includes work, even the most mundane of tasks. In the end, it’s not too dissimilar to a journey.
The Childhood of Jesus illustrates the finest qualities of Coetzee’s work. His sentences are imminently readable and yet the story is exceedingly complex. Coetzee creates human characters even when the narrative represents the pinnacle of allegory.
The power of story resides in its ability to dive deeper and it tell us a little more about ourselves than we would have learned with just the facts. The Childhood of Jesus exhibits this simple truth in spades. So, please, give it a read.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5