The Childhood of Jesus – JM Coetzee | The Monthly.
After a journey by a boat, then a tragic accident, a man arrives at the Centro de Reubicacion Novilla, a resettlement centre in a new country where he does not know the local language. With him is a young boy. We hear nothing of their pasts; new names are assigned to them – Simón and David. Fate has thrown them together.
We are mystified by how little help they receive from the bureaucratic workers at the resettlement centre. We, together with David and Simón, try to understand the signs and the rules. We also willingly invest in Simón’s quest to look for the boy’s mother. David has lost a piece of paper that might have explained all, and Simón has no real memory of his own past either. What is their story? Are they dead? Is this the afterlife?
I chose this as the first of our Monthly Books because from the very first page of JM Coetzee’s novel we are plunged into a world that is both familiar and unfamiliar. As the book is written in the present tense, the time and place are uncertain. It is a story that is asking to be unfurled.
In this strange and utterly compelling tale, we are presented with part fable, part quest. Yet at the heart of the book is philosophical inquiry. The Childhood of Jesus brings to mind many questions:
What are our appetites for, if not to tell us what we need?
What is human nature? Does sex bring men and women closer?
Why is Simón continually asking himself questions instead of just living, as he imagines everyone else does?
Is the price of making a new life by forgetting the old one too high?
Does David need Simón, a stranger, more than he does his “mother”?
What is the meaning of work, of education and of the story?
Why is it called “The Childhood of Jesus”?
JM Coetzee has always written novels that ask us to think deeply.
In Elizabeth Costello he asked us to think carefully about our relationships with animals. In Disgrace we were asked to think about ourselves as animals with drives and needs, and about the realities of politics and history and our lived experiences.
A few years ago, the philosopher Peter Singer co-edited JM Coetzee andEthics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, and he says that Coetzee has a critique of philosophers like him, who argue rationally. Coetzee wants us to engage in a different kind of thinking – one that has a broader conception of reason and which includes emotional thinking in some way.
In this novel we do our thinking easily because the story Coetzee tells traps us with its tender notes: we are compelled to journey to the last station with David and Simon, to see where all of us arrive.
I’d love to hear what you think of the book. You can start by posting questions in the comments section below, which I will answer in a live video session with special guest Craig Sherborne – author of Hoi Polloi andThe Amateur Science of Love – here on 30 April at 8pm.