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The Childhood of Jesus Hardcover – September 3, 2013

3.4 out of 5 stars 71 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this captivating and provocative new novel, a small boy who has been renamed David, and Simón, the man who has become David's caretaker since David was separated from his mother, have immigrated to a nameless country. Simón soon finds work on the docks, is given an apartment for new arrivals, and sets about the impossible task of finding David's mother, whose name they do not know and whose face the boy does not remember. One day, Simón glimpses a woman inside a wealthy household—a woman who very likely isn't David's mother—and becomes instantly, illogically convinced that she should raise the child. He approaches her intent on convincing her to be a mother to David; what unfolds is their story: mistakes made in the name of love and choices no one would wish to encounter. Most fascinating is the timeless, almost placeless country itself, which provides the immigrants with essentials–food, shelter, education, and modest employment–but denies them what Simón discovers matters most: irony, sensuality, intensity, and opinion. At times, the questions driving the allegory become almost too explicit, as when Simón asks a woman with whom he has just done the disappointing business of sex if the price we pay for this new life, the price of forgetting, may be too high? As in the past, Coetzee's (Disgrace) precise prose is at once rich and austere, lean and textured, deceptively straightforward and yet expansive, as he considers what is required, not just of the body, but by the heart. Agent: Rema Dilanyan, Peter Lampack Agency. (Sept.)

From Booklist

*Starred Review* With this powerful and puzzling novel, Nobel laureate Coetzee pivots away from the overtly autobiographical (or quasi-autobiographical, or anti-autobiographical) themes with which he experiments in Summertime (2009) and other recent works, and returns to the allegorical focus that defined Waiting for the Barbarians (1982) and other early works. David, an apparent orphan, and Simón, his guardian of sorts, arrive together in Novilla, a socialist-utopian city where the food is bland—bread and flavorless bean paste, mostly—and passionate love has been forgotten and is not missed. The people are mostly kind and prone to philosophical discourse, but Simón longs for meat and spices and eros, and no one quite knows what to do with young David, who has some unusual talents but also argues with his teachers about whether the rules of mathematics apply to him. Readers new to Coetzee may find this to be somewhat more accessible than some of his other novels, but with its curious tapestry of biblical themes, modern social commentary and ambivalent humanism, The Childhood of Jesus may actually be one of his most enigmatic. It will surely be discussed for years to come. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: This Nobel laureate always creates a buzz with every new book, and expect his publisher to amplify the buzz. --Brendan Driscoll

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1St Edition edition (September 3, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670014656
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670014651
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (71 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #52,404 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By T. Stroll on October 21, 2013
Format: Hardcover

If I recall correctly, in Arthur C. Clarke's novel "2001: A Space Odyssey" the astronaut Dave Bowman, having been catapulted through a wormhole in space into the confines of the replica French provincial apartment where he will rapidly age and die, leafs through a phone directory and sees that its text is fuzzy, as if copied imperfectly from afar.

The same seems to be true of Novilla, the mysterious city, a Spanish-speaking urban no-man's-land, that seems to have no original residents but only transferees via first a boat trip and then passage through the Belstar relocation camp. The main characters, the adult guardian Simón and the five-year-old David, are among them.

Novilla seems to embody an imperfect copy of a city made by a creator whose grasp of human institutions is imperfect. This creator has taken a stab at realizing an ideal version of human existence, possibly in an effort to realize Karl Marx's classless society. But the results don't quite work. In Novilla, there is no want and no economic conflict. But life is bland and largely scripted, as exemplified by the boarding-school-cafeteria food and the uncontroversial classes offered at the adult-education institute. The creator, like the mysterious civilization in "2001," could not plan for nuance, but only brush with broad strokes based on an ideal form absorbed from a distance.

The playful and brilliant J.M. Coetzee provides clues to this. I found two mistakes that Coetzee wouldn't make. I say this confidently because his English is impeccable, his Spanish is impeccable, and his novels are, as far as I've read them, flawless in the execution. Not so here, so any errors must be deliberate.
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Simón, a man in his forties, arrives at a refugee reception center in a coastal town, accompanied by a small child, David. He is not the boy's father, but met him on the boat taking them to this unnamed Spanish-speaking country. David has lost the papers given him by his mother, and Simón agrees to look after him until his mother can be found, guarding him through several months in a transit camp, and now bringing him along as he looks for work and a place to live. So far, the typical refugee story, though told in a simple direct style that is refreshingly different from some of the postmodern tricks and stylistic obscurities that Coetzee had been practicing in many of his later books. But this one will turn out to be obscure also, in its own way.

For this country is not like any other. The people are unfailingly helpful, but what they provide are the minima: a slice of bread, a roof over one's head. Transportation and many services are free, and work is easy to find; Simón takes a job as a stevedore, and his foreman and colleagues are kind and patient as he finds his feet. People seem mostly to live in simple rooms in small apartment blocks; whatever their work, they all seem to have adequate funds to buy the limited range of food and merchandise sold in the few stores. Conversation (the book is almost entirely in dialogue) is relatively open and easy, but also passionless. When Simón shows an attraction to one woman, she points out the logical absurdity of wishing "to push part of your body inside me"; when he is attracted to another, she permits sex, but only as an irrelevant adjunct to their comradely friendship.

What is this place? A socialist-inflected heaven?
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I don't get this book is averaging 3 stars! I started reading Coetzee when he won the Nobel for Disgrace, then read thru the whole ouevre and his literary reviews as they appeared in the New York Review of Books. I'll admit I was getting a little burned out, I thought some of the later stuff was getting too didactic and flat. But this...what a book! I'm in love all over again. I think you're especially going to like if you've got a little background in philosophy, Plato figures a lot - though is only once mentioned as the name of Mickey Mouse's dog(sic) - and there are some references to some 20th century thought, too. Coetzee's been reading, apparently. The kind of mysticism, supernaturalism or whatever you want to call it involved in the religious experience is is just masterfully ( I can't think of a less cliched word) presented. It sure gave me some moments of reflection and insight. And, of course, it's just fun to try to relate the various episodes to the actual biography of Jesus. Additionally, the cultural backdrop he dreams up, a totally bland, good, almost "morally advanced" society is wonderfully done. There's a good deal of self-realization in the characters that takes place, too. I'd say if you liked anything Coetzee has written, take this out for a spin.
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If I had the time I would dispense with the cliches, but tour de force gives you the general idea.
Though this novel is allegorical, it is impossible to give an unambiguous rendering of what the narrative represents.
I found it completely absorbing, even though its anchoring in 'realism' is only partial; Coetzee is able to construct an entirely viable story from a restricted repertoire of characters and contexts.
There is an excellent review of The Childhood of Jesus in the London Review of Books.
Coetzee is a literary great who surpasses the conventionally acknowledged masters of the twentieth century.
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