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J.M. Coetzee's Stunning New Novel Shows What Happens When a Nobel Winner Gets Really Weird

PHOTO BY Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty

Last December J.M. Coetzee, the South African-turned-Australian author, returned to Cape Town to give a reading. He began by thanking his former colleagues at the university where he had taught; he actually wrote many of his greatest novels longhand in University of Cape Town examination answer booklets. But then, before starting to read, he offered this strange prefatory remark to his new work: “I had hoped that the book would appear with a blank cover and a blank title page, so that only after the last page had been read would the reader meet the title, namely The Childhood of Jesus. But in the publishing industry as it is at present, that is not allowed.”

The remark was classic Coetzee: severe, ambitious, darkly humorous, more than a little weird, and fixated almost to the point of parody on frustrating expectations. During the years of apartheid he had established himself as a writer who, while strongly opposed to racial injustice (and glad to write about it in his nonfiction and criticism), rarely conformed to the global literary world’s expectations of an engaged, white South African writer. Unlike Nadine Gordimer, his fellow Nobel laureate, or Breyten Breytenbach, who was imprisoned by the regime, his books did not offer satisfying dissections of the apartheid state’s brutalities; they evaded, experimented, contorted themselves into self-contradictory poses. In this fourth decade of his career, Coetzee has become so resistant to clear or unitary readings of his work that he now doesn’t even want his books to have titles on the covers.

Coetzee’s terse, demanding novels can be imperfectly but helpfully divided into three rough phases. The first, covering the late 1970s and ’80s, consists largely of muscular, unadorned abstract fictions in the mode of Kafka and Beckett, such as Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and Life and Times of Michael K (1983). A second, more realist phase in the 1990s began with Age of Iron (1990), his furious and unsparing condemnation of the apartheid state. It continued through to Disgrace (1999), perhaps his most widely read novel, which begins as an almost comic university tale, shifts into something like a traditional South African farm novel, and turns out to be a monstrous rewrite of each. Though these were less allegorical than his earlier books, they were, in political terms, just as spiny. The leadership of South Africa’s governing African National Congress notoriously called Disgrace a “racist” book, and while that’s certainly untrue there’s no single line or character to disprove the accusation, and plenty of sticky material about the country’s post-apartheid troubles.

Since his emigration to Australia in 2002, however, Coetzee’s writing has taken a sharp turn away from realism. In what his biographer J.C. Kannemeyer calls the “Australian” books—others, a little unkindly, call them the “late” books—Coetzee has stretched the boundaries of the novel to the breaking point, largely doing away with narrative progression and concentrating primarily on form and ideas. Elizabeth Costello (2003) takes the shape of eight “lessons,” lectures or public debates delivered by the title character, Coetzee’s female and Australian alter ego.1 In Slow Man (2005), the title character’s life is interrupted halfway through by the arrival of the very same Elizabeth Costello, who says she is his author. Diary of a Bad Year (2007), an underrated book (and his funniest; he has always been funnier than his austere personality suggests), sees Coetzee divide each page into three horizontal stripes, the top third containing philosophical essays and the bottom two thirds fictional narratives. And Summertime (2009)—officially his third volume of autobiography but, as Kannemeyer demonstrates, almost entirely fictional—takes the form of transcribed interviews between Coetzee’s acquaintances and a biographer writing about “the late John Coetzee.”2

There’s no way around it: Australian Coetzee is weird. Yet Coetzee has never published a book as bizarre as The Childhood of Jesus, an unfathomable metafictional firecracker unlike any of his previous books and indeed unlike any other book I can name. The Childhood of Jesus, with a mock-populist title—and that title is indeed on the cover, with the word “Jesus” in giant capital letters; it would not look out of place at an airport bookstore—seems at first to be another “Australian” book.3 A strange graft of Socratic dialogue, biblical exegesis, socialist realist workers’ play, and road movie, it pares back the fundamentals of fiction; characters are deliberately two-dimensional, settings drawn in only the faintest outlines. Like the other Australian novels, it also places a premium on philosophical and ethical disputes, with sections devoted to the principles of mathematics, the gap between reality and the ideal, and the possibility or desirability of utopia. Humans’ relationships with animals, a major concern in later Coetzee, arises here too in the guise of a horse and a dog.

Yet The Childhood of Jesus turns out to mark a decisive shift from the heaviness of the Australian novels. While the prose is as sure-footed and spare as in all of his books—narrated as usual in the present tense—it’s also unexpectedly bright, frequently humorous, and driven almost entirely by dialogue, a rarity in his fiction. The book doesn’t abandon the philosophical engagement of his other Australian novels. Far from it. The didacticism of those books, however, has given way to something far more engrossing and narrative-driven; by its end, The Childhood of Jesus becomes almost a page-turner. It’s his best book since Disgrace, although maybe the most perplexing novel he’s ever published—which is saying a lot.

The Childhood of Jesus begins with a man, Simón, and a boy, David. Simón is not the boy’s father, but nevertheless, he explains to one of the many bureaucrats he tangles with, “I am responsible for him.” Simón and David are not the man’s and the boy’s real names, or their original names; they were assigned upon their arrival in a new country, which they reached via boat. So too their ages: David is said to be five, because “that is the age he was given,” while Simón is declared 45. As to their lives before their resettlement, neither we nor they have much of a clue. In a phrase that comes up again and again, Simón describes himself and all settlers as “washed clean” when they come ashore, scrubbed not only of their earlier identities but of their memories too.4

They have arrived in Novilla—a new world, the name suggests, or perhaps even the world of the novel. (Not literally: In Spanish, novilla means “heifer.”) The lingua franca is Spanish, which Simón and David have studied at a camp in the desert before their resettlement. After some early struggles, they settle into a government-built apartment, and Simón finds work as a stevedore, hauling sacks of grain at the wharves. Why don’t they use a crane, Simón asks his foreman? “What would be the point of getting things done in a tenth of the time?” his foreman responds. Why is there no news on the radio, “news of what is going on the world,” Simón wonders. The answer comes: “Oh, is something going on?”

That incurious attitude pervades Novilla, a hazy and barely detailed limbo. Citizens seem content, but life is languid and passionless. The economy is socialist, and buses are free. Football matches are free to attend too—when Simón asks about tickets, his foreman looks at him uncomprehendingly and says, “You don’t need to pay to watch a game.” The food, fittingly for a Coetzeean ideal society, is mostly vegetarian, but it’s bland to the point of absurdity: A picnic consists solely of bean paste on crackers. In the evenings, workers take free philosophy classes, but they study a dull Platonist philosophy in which all that is debated is the essential nature of objects, such as whether a chair has sillicidad (“chair-ness”). Simón, flummoxed, “searches for the irony, but there is none, as there is no salt.”

The highest human emotion in Novilla is “goodwill,” or a clement disposition toward one’s fellow beings. Sexual desire is a lower thing, which citizens prefer to philosophize away. (When Simón visits a brothel he strikes out; it has exacting regulations and generates only stacks of paperwork.) But love endures, and a third of the way through The Childhood of Jesus, Simón takes David around the city on a hunt for the boy’s mother. They have no leads—David lost a letter identifying his parents on the journey, and the bureaucrats at the city’s resettlement office can’t help them—but nevertheless Simón is convinced that the boy will know her when he sees her. “You may think you are washed clean,” he tells him, “but you aren’t.” At a mysterious stately home called La Residencia they see a woman, Inés, playing tennis, and in an outlandish, intense, beautifully drawn scene Simón convinces her that she is his “one and only mother.” She thinks he is proposing an adoption, but he’s not; on the contrary, Simón wants Inés to acknowledge that she is the “true mother” of David. With little resistance she does so, leaving La Residencia for Simón and David’s drab socialist flat.

So this strange episode, we think, is the anunciación coetzeeano, with Simón standing in not for Joseph but for the archangel Gabriel. (Inés even wears Marian blue.) But if you’re looking for allegorical clarity or even a passing resemblance to the Gospels, The Childhood of Jesus will frustrate you at every turn. None of the characters seem especially Christian; Coetzee’s philosophizing stevedores, who do pointless work for its own sake even when Simón discovers that rats are devouring the grain, sound more like Buddhist renunciates than apostles. Names and events are laced with allegorical possibility (a dog is named Bolívar, and one character named Juan feels a little like John the Baptist), but any this-for-that correspondence always collapses under examination. At one point, David goes missing for a spell, and Inés wails to Simón: “He told me he would give me a child. He didn’t tell me … he didn’t tell me he would take my child away.” Which sounds a little like something that a heartbroken Mary might say after the crucifixion—but then again, the “he” refers not to God but to a shady unemployed guy, and David is only off watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

Coetzee is an inveterate frustrator, and while the books have only grown murkier in his Australian era, the author has been preparing his obstacle course from the very first page of his very first book.5 “There remains the matter of getting past Coetzee,” begins Dusklands, Coetzee’s 1974 debut—the speaker is an American researcher producing propaganda for the Vietnam war, and “Coetzee” is his supervisor—and ever since then, the author has deployed a giant arsenal of metafictional ploys, self-contradictory symbols, unreliable statements, and unresolved narrative threads. Even the more philosophical novels of the Australian phase never state with any precision what Coetzee might believe, or how their increasingly knotty construction might be unraveled. The character of Elizabeth Costello, who appears not only in two novels but in short stories such as “As a Woman Grows Older” and “The Old Woman and the Cats,” is given to bold if not absurd claims—that to eat animals is to be complicit in a crime worse than the Holocaust, for example—but Coetzee then ducks responsibility for them by having other characters undercut and contradict her. The best way to read The Childhood of Jesus, then, is to accept it as to some degree an irresoluble tangle. It won’t be long before this book, like all his others, has an entire critical apparatus trailing it thanks to the ever increasing number of “Coetzee studies” scholars. Best to enjoy it now

The New Testament, of course, contains almost nothing about the childhood of Jesus, and despite all the biblical imagery of this newest novel I don’t believe Coetzee has any interest in rewriting the Gospels. The Childhood of Jesus does not ask how a Jesus figure would be received today; Novilla is too far removed from our world for that. It asks instead: Might the ideals that many of us advocate—ideals of freedom and resistance to hegemony—necessitate an epistemological rupture as profound as that of early Christianity?

David, the five-year-old at the center of this novel, does seem like a kind of prophet at times—when a teacher tries to discipline him, he goes to the blackboard and writes Yo soy la verdad, “I am the truth.” But if he is a savior, he’s an utterly self-centered one, advocating an anarchistic individual liberty free not only of bureaucratic regimentation but of logic itself. Simón tries to teach David to read via a tattered children’s book adaptation of Don Quixote, but David rebels. “I hate Spanish,” the boy says. “I want to speak my own language.” (Indeed The Childhood of Jesus, with its Hispanophone setting, is as much a response to Cervantes as to the Bible; David fancies himself a knight errant, and characters are frequently debating whether things are as they appear or double.) He’s even more resistant to numbers and arithmetic, and his resistance becomes a central feature of the second half of the novel. “I know all the numbers,” David proclaims, and rattles off random integers. But when Simón responds that numbers are ordered and systematic, David lashes out. 889 is bigger than 888, Simón tries to explain. To which David retorts: “How do you know? You have never been there.”

David’s gospel is not one of total illogic or irrationality; he actually can read and count. Rather, it recalls Elizabeth Costello’s antihumanist proclamations that imagination must be privileged over reason, or, even more closely, an argument in Diary of a Bad Year in which Coetzee writes that mathematics “may equally well be a private language … in which we doodle on the walls of our cave.”6 The Childhood of Jesus continues in this vein, but it does so through a much more dramatic lens. David sees numbers as “islands in a great black sea of nothingness,” and he seems to offer a rupture from Novilla’s rigid, bloodless organization, in which everything functions well enough but nobody seems truly alive. Yet the petulant, mystical David hardly seems like an ideal redeemer for the passionless socialists of Novilla. Even Simón, who chafes at Novilla’s bloodlessness, implores David to count like “a normal boy.” The bureaucrats of Novilla’s educational apparatus demand David be sent to a reformatory, which Inés refuses, and the conclusion of the book, featuring something like the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, details the perils that the increasingly oracular David poses to the system and to his soi-disant parents.

As I said, it’s bizarre—so bizarre in fact that after multiple readings I still can’t puzzle out exactly what its goals are. Is it a rewriting of a canonical text for contemporary purposes, or are the biblical references just a put-on? Why, in this fictional or ideal or hereafter world, do we find such endless bureaucracy? Why is the children’s version of Don Quixote the only literature in the library, and why is its putative author not Cervantes but Cidi Hamete Benengeli, the fictional Moorish author whom Cervantes pretended to be translating? Why does David recite Goethe at one point, and why does he think it’s in English? What’s with the dog—and for that matter, the horse? The Childhood of Jesus provides no easy answers, perhaps no answers at all, and undoubtedly this is a book that you can only get away with writing when you’ve already made your name as the most honored living novelist in the English language. Yet it is Coetzee’s unexpected accomplishment that, for the first time in a decade, his quizzical and grandly philosophical book feels not like a derogation of literature, but a triumph of it.

Jason Farago is a writer living in New York. Follow him @jsf. 

  1. Since the publication of Elizabeth Costello Coetzee has become an Australian citizen.

  2. Summertime has turned out to hinge on a stinging irony: Coetzee is of course alive and working, while Kannemeyer, Coetzee’s actual biographer, died in 2011

  3. An excellent essay in the Sydney Review of Books argues that The Childhood of Jesus draws heavily on the fiction of Gerald Murnane, a major figure in Australian letters who is little known in the United States. Coetzee published a long review of Murnane’s fiction in the New York Review of Books last year.

  4. “Washed clean” is an evidently biblical phrase, evoking both baptism as well as the blood of Jesus purifying us of our sins. (Revelation 1:5 ends, “…unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood.”) But “washed clean” is also a klaxon for Coetzee lifers: It’s a verb in the perfective aspect, i.e., completed rather than in progress. Explicitly perfective verbs—“washed clean” rather than “washed”—come up perpetually in Coetzee and form an important theme in Disgrace: The lecturer David Lurie goes on at length about “the distinction between drink and drink upburned and burnt. The perfective, signifying an action carried through to its conclusion. How far away it all seems! I live, I have lived, I lived.”

  5. This was pointed out by Hedley Twidle, an English professor at the University of Cape Town, in a hilarious essay that also punctured Coetzee’s undeserved reputation for reclusion: “Teju Cole has posted photographs of himself with Coetzee on Facebook – the end of an era.”

  6. In that essay Coetzee—or the fictional “Señor C” who is the author of the book’s essays—predicates his argument on a story by Jorge Luis Borges, “Funes the Memorious,” which features a man who counts after his own fashion.