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A blandly dystopian nightmare
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?
o The government is evil. WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS? THE AGE OF IRON?
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.