It’s best to approach the work of the Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee in a submissive, even penitential, frame of mind. His austere narratives deal with painful subjects: racism and violence in his native South Africa in “Disgrace,” the ravages of war in a blasted, semi-mythic landscape in “Life and Times of Michael K.” For the reader, the experience may be salutary if not always pleasurable. “The Childhood of Jesus” is less dark, even mildly comic at times, although nonetheless demanding. Like the earlier “Elizabeth Costello,” it is a kind of dialogue, in this case about the nature of reality.
The setting is a drab materialist utopia, a Spanish-speaking town called Novilla populated by refugees from catastrophe. The principal characters are new arrivals, David, a lost 5-year-old, and Simón, a middle-aged man who is determined to find David’s mother. The first episode sets a Kafkaesque tone: Ana, a functionary, offers Simón and David a free room, then sends them off in search of the key through a maze of closed offices and unresponsive personnel, finally making them spend the night in her backyard.
Human passions are fading memories here. Ana, sensing Simón’s attraction to her, says “you want to grip me tight and push part of your body into me. . . . I am baffled. To me the whole business seems absurd.”
Simón goes to work on the docks, where he philosophizes with other stevedores, rational fellows who maintain that the reality of the world is material, based on universal mathematical laws. The child, however, believes that mathematical laws are arbitrary, therefore open to interpretation. According to him, even the sequence of numbers is arbitrary; there are “cracks” between them, through which one can fall. Like Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, he does not see why two plus two need always equal four. Reading “Don Quixote,” he sides with Quixote, claiming that the windmill Quixote fights with is indeed a giant, that reality exists in the imagination rather than the external world.
Simón succeeds in finding David’s “mother” — a virginal young woman he somehow persuades to accept the child as her own. She soon begins pushing him around in a pram, infantilizing him and encouraging his strange ideas. Increasingly David asserts himself as the bearer of a radically subjective reality contrary to the laws of nature. “Yo soy la verdad” he says, like Christ. I am the truth.
Recalcitrant in school, David is sent to a re-education center but escapes, claiming he was able to walk through barbed wire. As the novel ends, Simón, who has begun to question the validity of his own rationalist certainties, is fleeing Novilla with David and his new mother. En route David acquires a new follower, a youth named Juan — perhaps Juan the Baptist, herald of a new savior who will rescue imagination and belief from rationalism and materialism.
The gray and featureless society of Novilla, however, makes for rather dreary reading; it is not consistent or convincing enough to support its philosophical burden. The novel’s most interesting aspect is the mother-son fable. Criticized for giving David to a stranger, Simón replies “It does not matter if by your standards or mine Inés is not a particularly good mother. . . . she is his mother.” To achieve his destiny, the gifted boy must have a virginal mother whose connection to him is not just the rational one of biology, but the irrational bond of overwhelming, even suffocating, maternal love. Such is the history not only of Jesus, but of other gifted men, among them the author himself, as recounted in “Boyhood” and “Youth,” his autobiographical fictions. Perhaps in this strange parable of the childhood of Jesus, he has told again the story of his own.