by j. m. coetzee
viking, 288 pages, $26.95
Awarded the Nobel Prize in 2003, South African novelist J. M. Coetzee has long been a fierce if idiosyncratic moral voice in contemporary literary circles. In the 1970s and 1980s, his essays and fiction regularly took withering aim at the hypocrisies and absurdities of colonialism, and likewise at apartheid-era life in his native South Africa (this included, incidentally, a thoughtful, if critical,review of Dispensations, Richard John Neuhaus’s own book about South Africa). His work since then has focused increasingly on questions of animal rights, on the ethics of vegetarianism, and on blurring the distinctions between fiction and autobiography.
This brief summary of his writing might suggest that his earlier stuff is better, but that’s not necessarily the case: Coetzee is neither a lock-brained ideologue nor a decadent literary tinkerer. Rather, he is a writer driven to explore questions of human dignity, justice, and self-knowledge, all in a historical-cultural moment that, he recognizes, has rejected higher-order grounds for answering them. Alive to the consequences of this, Coetzee is not calling for any kind of return to the fullness of the Judeo-Christian proposition, but he’s certainly not celebrating the gawping rupture that’s come after it, either.
Instead, Coetzee and his characters traverse a frustrating and arid ground, perhaps nowhere more starkly than with his latest novel, The Childhood of Jesus. Far from being a direct retelling of Jesus’s infancy narratives, the novel concerns a boy named David and the old man who watches over him, Simón. At the beginning of the story, the two of them arrive, hungry and desperate refugees, at an immigration processing center in a fictional European city named Novilla. During their journey to Novilla, the boy’s mother has died. Evidence of his father is limited, mysterious, and (occasionally) mystical.
And so, by happenstance, Simón finds himself caring for the boy. He dedicates himself fully to the task, convinced that having made it to the apparent promised land of Novilla, he has to find the boy a mother. Yet this refuge is an anonymous place populated by slack-spirited people, rich and poor alike, who are all comfortably pacified by the bland but steady provisions of a nanny state. Coetzee’s prose conveys this world with easewillfully unadorned, it offers no subtle beauty or submerged feeling, but instead the plain directness of ideas and events, people and problems, all in collision. Over time, the story revolves around one question: Whether or not any one child happens to be divine, how much ought we do to protect and nurture that one life?
For Simón, the answer is anything and everything, and this total devotion is only the more noticeable because of how indifferent the people and world around him are to his mission. No one opposes his efforts to provide the boy with food and shelter and, eventually, a mother, but that’s because no one makes much of an effort at anything in this world, as Simón pointedly observes.
“Do you know what surprises me most about this country?” Simón asks a typically civil, never friendly immigration officer. “That it 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? Are you lying, even to yourselves?”
Simón’s indictment could apply to much of middle-class Canada and other such bland secular havens (if with artisanal bread, filtered water, and organic fair-trade bean paste, of course). He resists Novilla’s sterile ethos by instead holding up experiences that are weighted with “all the gravity of bloodletting and sacrifice,” experiences that express the human condition in its fullness, whether religious, romantic, or familial. Opportunities for such experiences are largely absent in his new country, which offers its citizens a quietly suffocating blanket of state-dictated social services, but little more than that, and certainly no religion.
Coetzee’s tale is more strange than disappointingif finally, a little encouraging. For reasons he cannot explain, Simón decides that an unknown woman playing tennis with her brothers, whom he sees at an upscale condominium complex, is destined to be David’s mother. Just as unexpectedly, the woman accepts, adopts the child as her own, and proceeds to mother him with an almost hysterical fierceness. Simón does his best to help her while working for meager wages as a stevedore and pursuing a half-hearted relationship with another woman.
As for the child himself, David is sensitive, smart, and ambitioushe wants to help others, even to save others, even though Simón tells him that most people in this world do not want to be savedand, like Simón, David finds himself at odds with their stultifying and comfy confines. His resistance turns into misbehavior, which eventually leads to a greater conflict when school authorities decide to send him off to a residential institution for children with special needs. His mother refuses to hand over her only son, the state doesn’t care what the mother thinks or wants, and Simón climactically helps mother and child steal away in search of a new place to live, beyond the reach of the authorities.
So why did Coetzee choose the book’s title? There’s some warrant in his dropping bits and pieces of the Christian story into the novel: David’s mother is a virgin, his real father remains a mystery, and Simón is his Joseph-like earthly protector who speaks of eternal souls and of God’s watching over all of us; fearing for the child’s well-being at the hands of the local powers, his mother and earthly father leave for a distant land; David himself wants to save people who don’t want to be saved, and at one point he gets in trouble at school for writing on the blackboard “I am the truth.” To be sure, none of this adds up to anything resembling an integrated twenty-first-century imagining of Christ’s early days, and so what value does it finally have, in either moral or literary terms?
“God gives his command, and the story itself begins: everyone knows it.” So wrote Paul Auerbach in Mimesis, his 1946 masterwork of literary criticism, referring to Genesis 22, the story of Abraham and Isaac. Yet Auerbach’s assurance that “everyone knows” this story feels remarkably dated. I certainly wouldn’t assume as much about the undergraduate English students I teach, and I have ceased to be surprised by blithe ignorance about Western literature’s biblical groundings in otherwise brilliant and intellectually agile doctoral students.
And this broader situation may suggest Coetzee’s intentions with his latest novel. Of course Christ’s childhood didn’t involve anything imaginatively comparable to a young child and old man resettling in a softly totalitarian European country, where they search for a new mother for the orphaned little boy. Ultimately this elliptical, even eccentric involvement of biblical themes, figures, and narratives does not make for a work of superior accomplishment in either religious or literary terms, whether by comparison to masterworks of the past or the finer novels in Coetzee’s own oeuvre. Yet the novel does suggest, in curious and even captivating terms, that today the religious frame of reference has lost its controlling power across much of Western culture, but it hasn’t quite disappeared. Its splinters irritate and occasionally pierce the stolid solidity of the world the novel presents to us, a world otherwise limited in its possibilities to the mundane encompassments of late secular progressivism.
Randy Boyagoda is the author of Beggar’s Feast, and his biography of Richard John Neuhaus will be published in 2015.