Magazine article The Spectator

Something Is Missing

Magazine article The Spectator

Something Is Missing

Article excerpt

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee Harvill/Secker, £18.99, pp. 277, ISBN 9781846557583

Stripping down prose is not a risk-free undertaking. The excision of adverbs and the passive voice is sound practice in journalism. However, to make very bare writing a thing of beauty in fiction requires enormous skill. Hemingway's short stories - those clean, well-lighted places - manage it. Despite its author's fellow possession of a Nobel prize, J.M. Coetzee's new novel does not. In The Childhood of Jesus the South African eschews the baroque only to tend to the banal.

David and Simon arrive by boat in an unmanned Hispanophone country.

They come to the city of Novilla, where a bureaucracy serves the needs of newcomers. David is about five. Simon, a grown man, is not his father but has taken on David's care in the absence of his parents.

Simon finds work as a stevedore. Walking outside the city they encounter a woman called Ynes, who accepts David as her own son. She steers the boy away from Simon.

As he begins his formal education David proves a holy terror, and risks removal to a remedial educational complex at a place called Punto Arenas.

The title of the novel suggests David is a riff - to choose another gratuitous Spanish term - on El Nino, the Christ child himself, but the text is equivocal on whether he is genuinely touched or merely troubled. His possible development of his own private alphabet is counterbalanced by a conviction of the efficacy of a cloak to instil invisibility that seems simply - and uncomplicatedly - childish.

But the greatest problem with this novel is its loose depiction of place. The unnamed country, the conceit that individuals arrive there shorn of their pasts and the blend of frank oddity and urban drabness in Novilla (free buses, and prostitutes, who are termed therapists) all seem an attempt to prove that the novel is fundamentally an art form of ideas, not one rooted in setting. …

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