Is He Jesus?
Lytal, Benjamin, Newsweek
Byline: Benjamin Lytal
J.M. Coetzee portrays the son of God in his new novel.
J.M. Coetzee's new novel is a return to form. More than that: it may be his most brisk and dazzling book. Opening in the key of Kafka, the novel creeps into a nail-biting drama of parenthood and ends in a swirl of explicitly illogical metaphysical defiance.
Coetzee's title, The Childhood of Jesus, will seem like a provocation. No character is named Jesus. But at the novel's start a man named Simon and a boy named David have arrived in a new town and are looking for David's mother. He doesn't remember her. But they will know her when they see her, Simon feels sure. And when they do, lo and behold, she turns out to be a virgin.
Coetzee being Coetzee, he keeps these plotlines at arm's length. On their first night in town, Simon and David improvise a lean-to of corrugated iron. They live on bread and margarine. Simon takes work at the docks and, after a backbreaking shift, goes back to the resettlement office, where he finally secures a room for himself and his 5-year-old ward. They dine on two cubes of sugar.
This is the life of bare survival that Coetzee's work has championed since Life & Times of Michael K. It is the property-less, humiliated life that Lucy Lurie embraces in Disgrace: "To start at ground level. With nothing ... like a dog."
But Jesus is not such a political book as those. In fact--and this is the source of the book's buoyancy--Simon and David have arrived not in Coetzee's South Africa, nor his Australia, nor the universalized imperial city of Waiting for the Barbarians, but in a kind of heaven.
It is an afterlife, not with clouds and harps, but a dusty seaport with streets and buildings where the people are just a little too nice, too detached, too simple. And Simon doesn't fit in. He makes friends, but they worry that he too much "suffers from memories." They tell him also that sex is "a strange thing to be preoccupied with." His diet of bread and margarine gets varied, but only with bean paste. He wants spices. He wants irony. He wants meat.
By trading the regime of apartheid for the regime of heaven, has Coetzee somehow changed the valence of his fiction? Has the author of The Lives of Animals changed his spots? If Simon is not going to be punished for his desires, as David Lurie was in Disgrace, should this novel then be called Grace?
The force of the narrative that follows sweeps away such questions. In a riveting standoff worthy of The Turn of the Screw, Simon sees through a fence the woman he quixotically decides is David's mother. Her name is Ines. He talks his way into the mysteriously posh mansion where she lives and, through a series of interviews, convinces her to adopt David as her son. Then Simon absents himself.
A wholly laudable father figure--one whose gruff, watchful care recalls Cormac McCarthy's The Road--abandons his son to a total stranger, a woman who without being malevolent nonetheless fills the reader with the deepest unease. We see Ines hitch up her skirt and straddle the boy, tickling his stomach in a game called "Where is the spider?" We see the boy's manly suit of woolens replaced with frilled shirts and buckled shoes. We hear from neighbors that the boy has snubbed his former playmates. He rides about in a stroller now and sucks his thumb.
A boy who--according to the book's title and clues in the text--has the potential to be Jesus is being spoiled rotten. The banality of the situation is itself staggeringly suspenseful. Ines finally lets Simon visit in order to fix the toilet. David/Jesus insists on watching. " 'It's my poo,' he says, 'I want to stay! …