Review: 'The Childhood of Jesus' by J.M. Coetzee

"The Childhood of Jesus" features no character named Jesus.

That surely counts as one of the major provocations in J.M. Coetzee's delightfully vexing new novel.

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Many others pile up as the Nobel Prize winner relates an enigmatic story of strange pilgrims in a curious land.

In prose steamed of all wrinkles and flourishes, we encounter Simón, a middle-aged man, and David, a boy of about 5, as they enter a relocation center in an anonymous city. Simón makes it clear to all who ask that David is not his son.

They received those names at "Belstar," a refugee camp where they have spent the previous six weeks. What brought on or forced the movement from their old lives goes unexplained. Now, in this Spanish-speaking location, they wait to receive a new home, a new life, and continue to have the memories and attachments of their former existences washed away.

That's quite a premise, but Coetzee's hypnotic, dialogue-heavy prose sells it without a struggle, and the heady ride begins.

Although unique, the novel bears imprints of several literary forebears. Initially, Simón encounters a bureaucracy out of Kafka, with botched housing assignments and rules that make no sense.

Orwellian thought control might be the larger plan of unseen leaders.

There is a touch of Beckett in how these characters emerge out of the void into a distilled world where all they are left with are questions. When the boy wonders, "What are we here for?" he's asking something both specific and cosmic.

And throughout, one is reminded of the novels of Camus, with their combination of tight plots and philosophical underpinnings.

After getting his bearings, Simón finds work as a stevedore, leading to the first of many debates with his co-workers. They are much more adapted to the new life than he is.

Simón wants to know why the men don't use a crane rather than their backs to empty grain from the ships. It would certainly be faster. "But what would be the point?" asks the foreman. "It is not as if there is an emergency, a food shortage for example."

Simón replies: "So that we could devote our energies to some better task."

"Better than what? Better than supplying our fellow man with bread?"

He has a point. Efficiency is a goal no one understands in Simón's new home.

Simón soon meets Elena, the mother of one of the boy's friends. They develop a sexual relationship, but it is satisfying to neither. She — like everybody else in this place — is somehow emotionally muted. They believe in goodwill and friendship, but exist without passion, humor or any sense of irony. "They have no secret yearning [Simón] can detect, no hankerings after another kind of life. Only he is the exception, the dissatisfied one, the misfit."

Simón sets himself further apart in his new surroundings with his quest to reunite David with his mother. The boy lost his papers and identifying letters on the watery passage here. Simón doesn't have a name or even a description, but he believes he will know her when he sees her.

That doesn't take long. One day, he spies a young woman playing tennis at a luxury housing development. Simón finagles a meeting and almost instantly convinces her that David is her son.

Ines agrees to become the mother of this mysterious kid — who only becomes more so with time. David learns to read using "Don Quixote," a powerful tract on the creation of identity and the uses of rebellion against institutions. He works out his own coded language and interprets numbers in a highly unusual way. Those traits, along with a well-developed antipathy to authority, put him at odds with his teacher. The school wants to send him away to a special institute for further behavior modification.

Simón and Ines engage in a titanic struggle with the officials over the child's future.

In fact, the boy is special. Everyone begins to see it. Slowly and elliptically, the novel begins to offer — as one of its strands — a vague allegory of the life of the young Jesus.

Clues are scattered throughout. David arrives in a new world and miraculously lands in the arms of a virginal mother. He believes he can bring people and animals back to life. He learns about temptations and the ability to create a brotherhood amongst his friends. At one point, frustrated, he says: "I haven't got a mother and I haven't got a father. I just am."

Indeed, it is little David who leads his small "family" into yet another "new life."

"The Childhood of Jesus" — this cryptic, mythic, haunting fable — will never be easy to categorize. That's among its merits. But it's easy enough to say that the novel ranks among J.M. Coetzee's best.

John Barron is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of the Chicago Sun-Times. He lives in Oak Park.

The Childhood of Jesus

By J.M. Coetzee, Viking, 288 pages, $26.95

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