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on November 18, 2016
Too abstruse for the likes of me. Even the writing - more often than not, Coetzee's prose is riveting. Not this time. And the characters - he could have made SOME attempt to make them resemble real people. You read this and you constantly have the feeling you're missing something big, you're being lulled by the simplicity of it all, that you're not bright enough to "get it." But you also have the feeling that it's not coming off, that the writer has actually fallen short of his own object.
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on July 5, 2016
Ever finish a novel and ask yourself: What the heck was that about?

Well, that was my experience when I finished THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS, which is the ninth novel by the great J.M. Coetzee that I have read. Then, I consulted a few of the reviews on Amazon—particularly the brilliant lead review by T. Stroll—and the light bulb in my brain went on. “Holy cow!” was my reaction. “I completely misread the book.”

CHILDHOOD begins with the arrival of two characters in the port of Novilla: the forty-something Simon and the five-year-old David, who does not know the identity of his parents. Novilla is clearly a strange place—benevolent but perfunctory, bland yet dystopian. But it does enable Simon and David to find acceptable housing and for Simon to find employment, comrades, and wooden sex. This quest—for home, work, and society—is the primary subject of this novel’s first eight chapters.

From the beginning, Simon, who initially seems to have a rigid personality, is obsessed with restoring David to his mother. This is an impossible mission, since David doesn’t know her name or what she looks like. But in chapter nine, Simon, relying on his intuition, identifies a woman, Ines, as the mom. At the same time, his grasp of Spanish, the language spoken in Novilla, improves. And this is where my misreading began because, at this point, CHILDHOOD seems to shift its focus to themes that are not uncommon in other Coetzee books. Turns out that:

o Simon is not particularly likeable and holds certain unusual beliefs (transubstantiation) about food. He is also out of step philosophically with his comrades at work and is sharp and overbearing interpersonally. And, he is a poor communicator. Coetzee readers: does this sound familiar?

o There is sex in Novilla. But it’s not emotionally satisfying or even fun. Further, his own nature seems to edge Simon toward a solitary and marginal existence. He even makes his home in a grim and makeshift room. Any readers of YOUTH out there? How about THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K?


Anyway, this reader fell into the Coetzee trap and read to the end of CHILDHOOD—chapter 30—as if Coetzee was simply repackaging his tropes. With this reading, the book seems like a mishmash that is sometimes about the tyranny of government, sometimes about the aridness of relationships, and sometimes about bad parenting. And the DON QUIXOTE red herring sure doesn’t help.

My advice: In reading CHILDHOOD, focus on Novilla. What is it? What does it enable and why? And why is so much of the narrative so dreamlike? With this approach, things fall into place. And from this angle, the book may be brilliant.

Not my favorite Coetzee but worth reading. Recommended.
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on October 19, 2013
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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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? The end of the road, whatever it is, not a transit station to somewhere else; boats arrive, but passengers do not leave. When Simón casually uses the phrase "the best of all possible worlds" to his foreman, he gets the reply: "This isn't a possible world; it is the only world. Whether that makes it the best is not for you or me to decide." People talk of coming to this country "washed clean" of former memories and desires, to start again in a new life. Simón looks at his new friends and wonders "how much longer before he [too] will emerge as a new, perfected man?"

Coetzee has written parables before, set in imaginary places; WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS comes to mind. But that was a searing political fable, a coded but recognizable attack on the injustices in his native South Africa. But this one is a mystery I am quite unable to understand. What is its message? Where is it going? Why did it end when it did? Is the title simply ironical, or is there a religious message here? There are little flashes of Biblical language, and a striking but brief moment late in the book that has overtones of the child Jesus in the Temple, but nothing consistent. David grows and is sent to school, but nobody knows what to make of his combination of intelligence and learning difficulties. He is a lovely child with a vivid imagination, who just doesn't fit in. Is THIS perhaps the point, that the whole story is a tribute to the importance of the imagination in a world that increasingly tries to quash it? If so, I would applaud -- if only Coetzee had found a clearer and more compelling way to make it. [3.5 stars, rounded down]
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on October 7, 2013
The title is misleading and the story is confusing, leaving the poor reader to construct her own narrative and explanation of a tale derived from Kafka, but lacking his charm and clarity.
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on April 11, 2013
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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on August 22, 2014
JM is back to form. Even better, more absorbable, on a second read. Love the construction of each sentence, each page, each chapter. The book unfolds so beautifully. This guy, if you don't know him, is certainly among the most masterful storytellers and writers of our time. This book (his 15th?) has a brooding greyness that is relentless, much like all of his books. The sun in his writings, when not scorching the earth is rarely a source of pleasure; the sky rarely blue. It is a palate that is perfect for his powerful unsmiling prose, although his wit when occasionally proffered is genuinely (and usually ironically) funny. But always so much seriousness going on, yet gripingly entertaining at the same time. I guess that's what makes him great. The re-reads are all so worth it. Even those I didn't quite enjoy the first time exploded the second. Age of Iron comes to mind.

In this book, Simon, our narrator, is "washed clean" of his life's memories as he arrives by ship into a new world order, and with a five year old boy in tow over whom he is guardian. Unlike other residents of this new world, vestiges of his former self (thoughts of sex and love mostly) compete with the less-conflicted washed clean memories of those who surround him at work and at his apartment complex, forcing an occasional challenge on the new order of things as relates to love, companionship, progress, obedience, etc. Complicating this is the emerging mindfulness of his five year old thumb-sucking "son" David, who questions everything relentlessly, free from any past memory of what a childhood should be, and unburdened by thought of a future and its goal-orientations. Worth every word! I hope you will enjoy it.
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on March 4, 2014
I enjoyed this very much while, at the same time, being increasingly bemused! It is clearly an allegory of something but it's never made very clear what and, while you occasionally catch glimpses - (sort of a) virgin birth! - they're always a little inaccurate and unclear. But the story is compelling and the characters sufficiently interesting that it works on a very superficial level anyway. I read one review that wondered if this would even have been published, let alone so well received, if it were written by a nonentity and I suspect that's correct, but it's more a reflection on commercial publishing reality than on the book itself. I recommend this highly: you'll enjoy it just on face value and it will stimulate a lot of discussion with others who have read it!
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on November 28, 2013
I imagine J.M. Coetze's The Childhood of Jesus will send people scurrying through the novel frantic biblical symbol hunts. They'll find a few tasty clues, but I doubt they'll help plumb the depths of this fascinating book. In fact, the hints of allegory might in the end be little more than a Coetze joke. It would be better to sum up The Childhood of Jesus as the story of person with extraordinary insight and vision trapped in a prosaic world.

In the allegory category, look at the protagonist. He's Simon (as in Simon Peter, you might suppose). Five year old David (as in the house of David) drops into his care from almost nowhere and Simon takes it upon himself to find the child's true mother. For no good reason, he decides he's found that mother in the person of a virginal lady dressed in Marian blue, takes on the role of Gabriel, and hands the child over to her. Problem for the biblical parallel? The lady's name is not Mary, but Ines; and, virginal or not, she's no spring chicken, has no husband, nor any desire to get pregnant. Is Coetze giving us the equivalent of an Emily Dickinson slant rhyme or just a gigantic tease? In other such examples, I noted hints of three of the four apostles, and of David's sense of a life mission in his writing Yo soy la verdad on a school blackboard. However, only one of the apostle candidates--Juan--shows apostolic tendencies, so that parallel is a fizzle.

Oh, and then there's the plot. When Simon takes David under his wing after a shipwreck, they find their way to a relocation center. The lingua franca of the area they're in is Spanish, so the official name of the center is Centro de Reubicacion Novilla, a name which would seem to be a cognate for "new," but which really means "heifer" in Spanish. The place is a socialized community that provides apartments, menial jobs and food to displaced persons. The inhabitants all accept their lot without ambition or protest (suggesting, perhaps, that the "heifer" moniker means the people are cattle-like) , which attitude drives Simon nuts. He's possessed of a normal helping of both skepticism and striving, and is frustrated by the citizens' passive responses to his challenges of accepted procedures and customs.

So, what's the point of the title? Is the whole book just a giant nobel-prize-winner-put-on? Absolutely not. Coetze both demystifies and deifies the Jesus myth. David is a gifted child whose perspective on reality constantly bewilders and bedevils the adults around him. Though Simon is a great questioner relative to the other Novilla citizens, his avuncular advice to David is pretty conventional. He over and again urges him to conform, to accept circumstances because we're all trapped in them.

David's quite spoiled and willful, always insists on getting what he wants no matter how unreasonable. Sometimes it's just petty childhood stubbornness (Surprise, Christ might have been human.) But often it's a matter of his living in a personal world that's off-center from everyone else's reality. He knows his numbers, but refuses to put them in order. He teaches himself (almost) to read with a child's version of Don Quixote, and he can calculate just fine when he wants to, but doesn't reveal his skills to the frustrated adults around. He's focused on other things, like the dangerous cracks between the numbers.

In the end, Simon, Ines, and David escape from Novilla and embark on a journey to an unknown destination. They leave to avoid officials' attempts to incarcerate (in their view) David in a special school supposedly designed to help gifted and talented children develop their talents. Not for David. Simon seems finally to embrace David's strange perspective, even though he understands it not at all. Ines indulges him with the blind maternal faith she's always had.

I've read a few complaints about the philosophical discussions that pervade the novel, but I found them organic to the book, tied inextricably to plot, character, and action. Nothing like the confusion and abstruse discussions of Coetze's Elizabeth Costello, which seemed impenetrable to me. No, The Childhood of Jesus is challenging, fascinating, mysterious and written in that clear, crisp Coetze prose that won him the big prize. It's a big time winner.
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on December 2, 2016
Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus is about the nature of reality. It's a great book, but it's annoying. The story's antagonist, a five-year-old (his age is not an absolute) grows increasingly imperious in imposing his reality - some of the conversations between the main character, Simon, and the child sound like the frustrated reporting of Coetzee's possibly real conversations with his own grandchild, the stagnation he feels as a witness to the way this child is indulged may be some of the reason I'm irritated. The book is really philosophy, fiction in the form of allegory, in the way that Don Quixote is an allegory (Don Quixote is a major thread), wherein everything from the basic postulation to the series of events are examples of what Coetzee means to say, which can be summed up - numerically - as 1 + 1 = 1, or 2 + 2 = 3 (these mathematical problems are two ways of saying the same thing). That thing is: the society we've created is a world, with rules that substantiate it, but it could as easily be another world, with other rules; the organizations within it are worlds, and each individual is a world. Furthermore, each of these worlds is unique (why you can't count one man plus one man, and get two men - the men are not the same), and when you put them together you get consequences and those consequences are a third world, unique, therefore also one. The same thing happens when you add pairs. Each pair is one, not two, and when you put them together you get something else, an unknown until it creates itself through consequences of the meeting. Three unknowns. Even if you cleanse the human unit of its history, language, name, consequences of his/her interactions with other human units will immediately abound. Then if you add in belief - in order for the individual unit to constitute a world it must believe in the rules that govern it - whether or not its beliefs are supported by fallout, events - what that unit's beliefs are concerning that same fallout support and frame its world. Ah, am I making sense? The human unit selects it's society pretty much at random - all who will admit to the rules of the consequent world are welcome (religion). And what impels it all - sets it into motion - is desire. Free will is: we can accept or reject the various worlds. However, we cannot avoid encountering them. Refusal will not keep them out, and resisting them is an action that makes more worlds. There cannot be - ever - stasis. There are cracks between the numbers 1, 2, 3. Even activities that are pointless from beginning to end are part of the process. Of course, Coetzee never spells out any of this - we have to - ha - put it together for ourselves. All that's missing is Zen laughter, or perhaps existential laughter. Now why would all that annoy? I'd like to see the characters explode themselves - vanish back into their own air.
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