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The Childhood of Jesus

Andrew Tate


JM Coetzee
Harvill Secker

Stop me if you've heard this one before. An uncannily gifted but unconventional child, raised by his surrogate father and a deeply devoted woman who did not expect to be a mother, upsets the authorities by challenging their philosophy. The boy also prefers the company of thieves and outcasts to other children, has a habit of correcting his teachers and causes people to leave the comfort of home behind to live new, unpredictable lives. This spare outline is surely as familiar to Christians as quiche and choruses that go on a bit too long but other plot details from JM Coetzee's intriguing new novel rather complicate matters.

The Childhood of Jesus is set not in first century Palestine but in an unnamed, Spanish-speaking country during an era that may or may not be our own and among people who seem to be refugees. Despite its allusions to a timeless story, this is an unsettling novel and one that thrives on ambiguity.

Coetzee, twice winner of the Booker Prize, is something of an unconventional writer whose work frequently defies standard literary categories. His fiction seems to be drawn to threshold situations and spaces, to the world of not yet, not now. The last chapter of Elizabeth Costello, for example, seems to take place on the threshold of heaven where its titular protagonist awaits judgement. And the anonymous land of The Childhood of Jesus echoes that liminal world. The country in which our protagonists begin their new life is not quite a dystopia, though its mildly legalistic bureaucracy might recall the nightmare worlds of Orwell and Kafka. Nobody starves but culinary pleasure is viewed with grave suspicion. Is this a world to come or one that Coetzee believes already exists? The novelist is too stubbornly resistant to typical narrative patterns to do anything as crude (or as satisfying) as explaining why Simón (the not-quite father) and David (the child) had to flee their old country and be given new names. The atmosphere, rather than wholly oppressive, is just a little odd. Why do none of this country's citizens seem to remember their pasts? What has happened to desire? This world seems to be free of religion but not so of law or, happily, of basic goodwill. Simón, frustrated by the near affectless character of his relationships, asks 'What is the good of a new life [. . .] if we are not transformed by it, transfigured, as I am certainly not?' And perhaps this desire for transformation or conversion indicates the shape of the novel's implicit, insistent theological question. Is obedience to law enough for complex human beings who wish to live justly?

The Childhood of Jesus, for all of its wilful oddness, belongs to a recognizable tradition. It is an example of what Theodore Ziolkowski has named 'fictional transfigurations of Jesus'. The last 20 years has witnessed a huge proliferation of narratives that re-write elements of Gospel stories. Some of these fictions, like Jim Crace's Quarantine (1997) - in which a mystic from Galilee dies during a 40-day fast in the wilderness - and Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ (2010) read as incredulous ripostes to Christian orthodoxy. Others - most notably Richard Beard's Lazarus is Dead (2011) - offer a more nuanced, experimental exploration of belief, suffering and the divine. I imagine that Coetzee's cheeky title alone will perform the rare coup of irritating conservative believer and radical atheist alike. The allusion to scripture might seem borderline blasphemous to the devout; for some sceptics, by contrast, a reference to Jesus will look like a dangerous flirtation with religion. But does this book simply steal the aura of Christian tradition without addressing its key claims?

Alternative interpretations are possible. It might be read as an allegory of the shock of parenthood and, especially, the demanding nature of childhood. The treatment of asylum seekers and exiles of all kinds is another crucial contemporary context. Samuel Beckett's bathetic wit, cited in Dave Eggers' A Hologram for the King, also seems to be a kind of guiding force in this distinctive fable. For me, the novel effectively prompts a new encounter with the strangeness of the Gospels, especially their emphasis on the exiled nature of God's people. It is easy for the stories of Mary and Joseph to become both remote and cosy. Yet what must it have been like for the earthy family of Jesus, burdened as well as blessed with knowledge of his status? This iteration of the story plays intelligently with such problems. Coetzee grants his readers neither miracles nor authorial guidance as evidence of David's divinity. When told to tell the truth, David starts to write, slowly and carefully, 'Yo soy la verdad, I am the truth'. Is he unique or just a very naughty boy?

It would be a shame if Christian readers were discouraged from reading the novel because of its title. It is rare, in my experience, that contemporary writers really traduce or betray the Gospel, even if they ask questions about its demands and implications. Although one of Coetzee's characters is dismissive of the religious impulse - 'Faith means believing in what you do even when it does not bear visible fruit' - The Childhood of Jesus, at the very least, questions the limits of dry rationalism.


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