Far from Heaven

The Childhood of Jesus BY J. M. Coetzee. Viking Adult. Hardcover, 288 pages. $26.

When J. M. Coetzee’s novel The Childhood of Jesus appeared in the rest of the English-speaking world, in March, critics expressed a sense of polite befuddlement:

“[Coetzee] knows what he’s doing but he’s not going to tell you what that is, and I spent much of The Childhood of Jesus trying to figure it out. I can’t say I have figured it out.” (Benjamin Markovits, The Guardian)

“The reader is abandoned at the end of the book, still trying to determine whether Coetzee has written another great allegorical piece, or something too elusive to provide satisfaction.” (Joy Lo Dico, The Independent)

The Childhood of Jesus is a very mysterious novel: I finished it impressed, intrigued and confused, without any clear sense of what it was actually about.” (Theo Tait, again in The Guardian)

“Meaning is being made, one senses, or a wry joke being perpetrated at some obscure remove. But quite what its consequences are, and why the reader should care, is sometimes hard to tell.” (Hedley Twidle, the Financial Times)

Given his druthers, Coetzee would have puzzled them more. Months earlier, he’d said that the book should have been published with a blank cover and title page, “so that only after the last page had been read would the reader meet the title: namely, The Childhood of Jesus.” (“In the publishing industry as it is at present,” he added, drily, “that is not allowed.”) But Coetzee’s publisher needn’t have worried—the book is a riddle, but not an impossible one, and, in any case, its chancy title gives little away.

The novel begins with a middle-aged refugee’s arrival at a “Relocation Centre” in Novilla—a name that suggests newness, no-ness, novel-ness (“Novilla”/“novella”), although in Spanish (the language that Novilla’s residents seem to speak) the word itself means “heifer.” The place, which may or may not be the afterlife, or one of its antechambers, is a stereotypically drab, socialistic utopia. (Kafka’s bureaucracies are an obvious reference point.) The people really are cowlike—goodwilled and benevolent, up to a point, but devoid of ambition, nostalgia, curiosity, lust, and all the attendant drives and desires. The refugee’s name is Simón. “People here have washed themselves clean of old ties,” one of the residents says to him. “You should be doing the same: letting go of old attachments.” But Simón is incapable. “I suffer from memories,” he explains, “or the shadows of memories. I know we are all supposed to be washed clean by the passage here, and it is true, I don’t have a great repertoire to call on. But the shadows linger nevertheless.”

Older men who will not (or cannot) let go of the past appear elsewhere in Coetzee’s fictions—Paul Rayment, in Slow Man (2005), and David Lurie, in Disgrace (1999), are variant types—and the city of Novilla bears a structural resemblance to the existential limbo Coetzee described at the end of Elizabeth Costello (2003). Beckett, Don Quixote, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” and the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov cast their own thematic shadows over The Childhood of Jesus—which can also be read as an icy rejoinder to Cormac McCarthy’s Christian allegory, The Road. (More on this later.) As always, Coetzee’s sentences are economical and surgically precise. (“I do believe in spareness,” the author has said. “Spare prose and a spare, thrifty world: it’s an unattractive part of my makeup that has exasperated people who have had to share their lives with me.”) But leviathans swim just below the novel’s surface.

In Novilla, the man who will not let go of his shadows stands apart from the crowd. But Simón is not quite alone. A small boy (David) has accompanied him on the journey—fallen, somehow, into his care. “Not my grandson, not my son,” Simón explains several times over the course of the novel, “but I am responsible for him.” In fact, Simón loves the child. And although he has never seen the boy’s mother, he quickly begins to look for her. It becomes an idée fixe: He will find the boy’s mother; he will know her the moment he sees her. One day, on the outskirts of the city, he sees a woman named Inés.

The reader knows immediately that Inés has never been anyone’s mother. If anything, she appears to be a virgin. Inés herself takes some convincing. But Simón is sure, and Inés agrees to take charge of the boy. “I can’t believe my ears,” Simón’s friend Elena tells him. “How could you hand David over to someone you have never laid eyes on before, some woman who is probably acting on a whim and will lose interest before the week is over and want to give him back?”

Inés does not give him back. Elena fades from the novel.

Inés infantilizes the boy—dresses him like a Little Lord Fauntleroy, trades his bed in for a crib, wheels him around in a carriage—and does her best to keep Simón from seeing him. If the novel’s first act is taken up with the search for David’s mother, the second describes Simón’s efforts to find a way back into the boy’s life.

By this point, the reader will have asked herself: Is David Jesus? Some actions in the novel recall passages in the New Testament. Others do not. Whatever the case may be, David is remarkable. Not mystical (in ways that might have ruined the novel), but imaginative, poetic, and given to strange pronouncements and odd, nonsensical ideas—about numbers, volcanoes, stars in the sky. “Which of the two is bigger,” Simón asks him at one point, “888 or 889?”

“888,” the boy replies.

“Wrong. 889 is bigger because 889 comes after 888.”

“How do you know? You have never been there.”

This sort of thing causes problems when David enters school. The boy’s teachers are rigid and literal-minded; the authorities suggest that he be sent to a “Special Learning Centre”—it may or may not be a reformatory—fifty kilometers away. This is the threat that brings David, Simón, and Inés together for good in a third act that turns The Childhood of Jesus into a sort of road novel.

The Childhood of Jesus is one of Coetzee’s longest works; it’s full of incident, and gripping from the very first page. But the book’s setting is dreamlike, and defined not so much by the things it contains as by the things it seems to lack. There is no salt in Novilla, no irony, and no news of the outside world. “Things do not have their due weight here,” Simón thinks. “The music we hear lacks weight. . . . The food we eat, our dreary diet of bread, lacks substance—lacks the substantiality of animal flesh, with all the gravity of bloodletting and sacrifice behind it. Our very words lack weight, these Spanish words that do not come from our heart.” Repeatedly, one notices that, in Novilla, there’s only one example of any given object: one dog, one criminal, one grocery store, one language, one television set, one novel (a children’s edition of Don Quixote, which Simón finds in a library and reads aloud to David). Only one of the characters is given a first name and a surname. It’s as if Coetzee’s stage is really a theatrical stage, and the things he’s set out on it are props, or Platonic forms. What can the author be up to? Writing in the Globe and Mail, John Goldbach called The Childhood of Jesus “a sublime and profound meditation on a myriad of subjects: on the nature of desire, for example, childrearing, the nature of numbers, the nature of reality, in general, etc.” This is true, as far as it goes (among other things, the novel is also a brilliant, blistering description of what it means to seek refuge). But what does the “etc.” contain? What is the novel about?

In Doubling the Point, a book of essays and interviews published in 1992, Coetzee draws a distinction between people in Thomas Hardy’s novels, who ask no questions about what genre they belong to, and people in Don Quixote, who do, and makes his own allegiances clear: “Cervantes is the giant on whose shoulders we pigmies of the postmodern novel stand,” he says. Midway through Slow Man, Elizabeth Costello turns up; in fact, she appears to be writing the book, which ends with Paul Rayment’s refusal to understand his own status as a literary construct. The Childhood of Jesus is clever in related ways—Don Quixote’s appearance within the novel is no accident; nor is it an accident that Spanish, the language of Cervantes, is also Novilla’s language—and as the book progresses, Coetzee’s title comes to look more like a dare, a challenge, or (to use a phrase that appears within the novel’s pages) a “deep joke.”

This is where the connection to McCarthy’s The Road begins to come into focus. The broad outlines of Coetzee’s plot—an older man, some sort of father, guides a boy through a strange, denuded landscape—may recall that of McCarthy’s novel. But while McCarthy is careful to establish The Road’s allegorical underpinnings, Coetzee is less clear about his intentions. If David is Jesus, he also recalls the biblical David—a small person who stands up to the Goliath of Novilla’s bureaucracy. Insofar as he’s unwilling (or unable) to bend his imagination toward everyday banalities—to accept, for example, that 888 is not larger than 889—he might even be a miniature Don Quixote (a twist that casts Simón in the role of Sancho Panza). Then again, he might simply be David, the boy. Time and again, characters within the novel bristle at the very idea of deeper meanings, or doubled ones. “Nothing is missing,” Elena tells Simón one day. “The nothing that you think is missing is an illusion. You are living by an illusion.”

The author calls this day the “day of the full answer.”

It is no accident, too, that Novilla manifests characteristics—bloodlessness, brittleness—that are sometimes used to describe J. M. Coetzee’s own novels. (Coetzee had fun with similar ideas in his 2009 book Summertime.) To some extent,The Childhood of Jesus seems to be a novel about postmodern novels—more precisely, the postmodern novels of J. M. Coetzee. Which is also to say, it collapses the allegorical possibilities, and becomes the thing that it is about. (Late in the novel, David’s teacher asks him to write on the blackboard: “Conviene que yo diga la verdad. I must tell the truth.” David writes instead: “Yo soy la verdad, I am the truth.” Is the passage allegorical? Yes? No? Should the question be, What truth value do words like “yes” and “no” have, in the world of a novel?) One is reminded of William Carlos Williams’s aversion to metaphor and simile (for him, no thing was like any other thing), and of Flannery O’Connor’s famous remark about the Eucharist: “If it’s a symbol,” she said, “to hell with it.”

But The Childhood of Jesus is more than an intellectual exercise. Something is missing; Simón is right to sense it. Try as he might, it’s not a situation he can reason his way out of: Like Paul Rayment, Simón can’t see past the page he inhabits. But the rules that govern his world do change—its physical borders expand, and escape routes present themselves—the moment that Simón leaves reason behind and begins to live up to his name, which comes from the Hebrew: Shim’on, or “he who has heard.”

Simón works as a stevedore on the Novilla docks. One day, a machine knocks him into the water. In his hospital room, Simón has a dream, or vision, of the boy, in a two-wheeled chariot, “hovering in the air at the foot of his bed.”

“It wasn’t an opium dream,” Simón decides. “It was the real thing.”

Afterward, Simón is changed, and his understanding of the boy changes accordingly. “While I was in hospital with nothing else to do,” Simón explains,

I tried, as a mental exercise, to see the world through David’s eyes. Put an apple before him and what does he see? An apple: not one apple, just an apple. Put two apples before him. What does he see? An apple and an apple: not two apples, not the same apple twice, just an apple and an apple. Now along comes señor León (señor León is his class teacher) and demands: How many apples, child? What is the answer? What are apples? What is the singular of which apples is the plural? . . . You throw up your hands in exasperation, and I can see why. One and one and one make three, you say, and I am bound to agree. . . . But David won’t follow us. He won’t take the steps we take when we count: one step two step three. It is as if the numbers were islands floating in a great black sea of nothingness, and he were each time being asked to close his eyes and launch himself across the void. What if I fall?—that is what he asks himself. . . . Lying in bed in the middle of the night, I could sometimes swear that I too was falling—falling under the same spell that grips the boy. If getting from one to two is so hard, I asked myself, how shall I ever get from zero to one? From nowhere to somewhere: it seemed to demand a miracle each time.

It is late in the book. There is still the threat that David will be separated from the mother that Simón has found for him. “You don’t really believe in the child,” Inés has told him. “You don’t know what it means to believe.” But now that he does believe, Simón takes one of Novilla’s few cars (it belongs to Inés’s brother) and whisks Inés and David out of the city. “They have no map,” Coetzee writes. “He has no idea what lies ahead on the road.” It is our first glimpse of the world beyond Novilla’s borders.

Coetzee has a few more cards to play. David announces that David is not his real name, but refuses to divulge his true name; the car stops for a hitchhiker, Juan, who may or may not be a stand-in for John the Apostle. It’s not quite the case that, outside of Novilla, rules and reasons no longer apply. And yet, one senses that there’s more room for faith, imagination, allegory (which keeps sneaking in through the back door), and the occasional miracle—even (unusually, for Coetzee) for the possibility of a happy ending.

“Are we a family?” David asks Simón, as they set out on the journey.

“A sort of family,” Simón replies. “Spanish doesn’t have a word for exactly what we are, so let us call ourselves that: the family of David.”

Alex Abramovich is a writer in Oakland, California, and Astoria, Queens.