This novel takes place in a strange world. It’s a precise but elusive kind of strangeness, which some reviewers have found off-putting. It isn’t a strangeness of plot (a man and a boy search for the boy’s true mother), setting (the Spanish-speaking town of Novilla) or style (the novel is conveyed in Coetzee’s plainly elegant present tense), but a strangeness kindred to the uncanny, which itches at the reader’s mind as events play out.
At the outset of The Childhood of Jesus, a man presents himself and a small boy at a resettlement office in a town called Novilla. He is given the Spanish name Simón, the boy, David, though these are only ever used in dialogue. To the narrator they remain ‘he’ and ‘the boy’. As the man states to various inquiring parties, the boy is ‘Not my grandson, not my son. We are not related’ but ‘The boy happens to be in my care’. The two are treated with much politeness but scant friendliness at the repatriation centre; ‘slight hitch’ atop slight hitch results in a bit of darkish comedy where Ana (who works at the centre) offers to put them up for the night, only for the man and boy to be cast out into her garden, and told to construct a shelter from an old bit of corrugated iron.
Novilla is missing, as The Simpsons puts it, that little bit of spice which makes existence extra nice. The man is able to find honest, well-paid work as a stevedore, but there’s nothing really to spend the money on. His fellow stevedores discuss the nature of their work, and of the world, during lunchtimes and at free philosophy classes, but everyone argues perfectly synthetically, and the classes focus on the ontology of tables and chairs. We learn of the man’s purpose in Novilla: to find the boy’s ‘true mother’. He doesn’t go about this scientifically, feeling that he’ll know her as soon as he sees her.
Duly he does, and Inés, a childless woman in her thirties who lives in the gated, seemingly wealthier La Residencia, becomes the boy’s mother. I say ‘becomes’ because I don’t know a better word for what happens; Inés moves into the man’s old flat and starts acting as the boy’s mother. The boy himself oscillates quite smoothly between brattish five year old (the age he is assigned at Novilla, we don’t know his exact age) and visionary iconoclast. To the novel’s great credit, the iconoclasm is just about plausible for his age (especially with the man’s exegesis). The story concludes as the man, Inés and the boy abscond from Novilla’s authorities, who want to consign the boy (often disruptive to his class) to Punto Arenas, a vaguely threatening reform school-type institution. In the final pages, the boy, decked out in an adult-sized magician’s cape and prescription sunglasses after partially blinding himself, invites strangers to join him in a new life.
Sometimes the biblical correspondences are this heavy, but they’re usually lighter, and always formulated with a delicate ambiguity that pushes us to question the exact nature of the novel’s setting. The title is artfully chosen; in an age of global publishing conglomerates, titles are often assigned on the basis of brevity and marketability, but The Childhood of Jesus at once makes us question where we’re headed. It continues to provide creative tension as we work through the possible connections between what happens in the novel and its announced context.
Nietzsche questioned the way we see Socrates as the central pivot in Western philosophy, offering Jesus Christ as an alternative. Sure enough, a number of philosophical viewpoints are brought to the agora (almost literally), and their merits and demerits are thrashed out by Novilla’s denizens. During lunchtimes at the docks, the man tries to argue that the stevedores should aspire to more than unloading grain from ships. He ties himself in knots under the implacable questioning of his comrades, until Álvaro (the foreman) leaves himself wide open: ‘There is no place for cleverness here, only the thing itself’. The man replies:
‘Listen to yourself, Álvaro,’ he says. ‘The thing itself. Do you think the thing remains forever itself, unchanging? No. Everything flows. Did you forget that when you crossed the ocean to come here? The waters of the ocean flow and in flowing they change. You cannot step twice into the same waters.
This is as explicit a reference as you can make to Heraclitus without naming him; it even contains the exact river analogy which Plato uses to describe his philosophy in the Cratylus. Earlier, as the man eats a picnic with Ana and thinks about trying to touch her, there are strong echoes of the Symposium.
I’m not entirely sure why Coetzee has the man deliver a riposte informed by Heraclitus, but it breaks up the staid, inexorable way in which the man’s comrades proceed with their arguments; the same way they carry their grain, essentially. If we do take Socratic reasoning as the pivotal point of Western philosophy, the pre-Socratic Heraclitus is a bit off the main road (though he was a Modernist favourite: Four Quartets uses him as an epigram, and Pound quotes him in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley). He symbolises, perhaps, the man’s dissatisfaction with the way everyone argues from tributaries of the same river. 2003’s Elizabeth Costello features extensive correspondence with a range of philosophers, but here that correspondence is woven into the fabric of the story.
The world of the novel has many handles of real life we can grasp. After the man moves out of his flat, leaving Inés to raise the boy, he pays them a visit and finds himself unblocking their toilet, whilst trying to explain to the boy the notion of ‘the pooness of poo’ and the fact that toilets don’t receive ideas particularly well. The scene sends up, or at least explores the limitations of, philosophical fiction, and insists that the world can quickly chop the grandest ideas down to size. There is a touching scene as the boy and Inés visit the injured man in hospital, following an accident using a mechanical crane at the docks. ‘‘Can’t he walk?’ asks the boy. ‘Can’t you walk, Simón?’’ The particularly explicit biblical resemblance makes us realise that maybe we’ve been searching too hard for them in the story; the strongest link to Jesus is the loving bond between the man and the boy, which strengthens despite the novel’s unfathomable adversities.
Coetzee is a writer who has plenty of experience of gently smudging real-world settings, altering the equation so that it precipitates his ethical concerns more clearly – the Empire in Waiting for the Barbarians, for instance. This novel, though, follows the dictum of letting the reader make sense of the world and the people presented on their own, quite masterfully so. What is Novilla? Is it a version of the afterlife? Is it the Platonic Form of a society, which, by way of its its quite evident flaws, forces the man, boy and Inés to flee and thereby shows the impossibility of such an ideal society (or at least its incompatibility with a philosophical rebel like Jesus Christ)? What does the boy’s ‘mother’, Inés, who lives a kind of pleasant-but-worthless life in La Residencia, playing tennis with her sullen brothers, say about the immaculate conception? And just what is to be found outside Novilla, if the ‘sort of family’ keeps driving? I can’t answer these questions definitively, but I enjoyed postulating them, and thinking about their possible answers.