- The Boy of La Mancha: J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus
No room at the inn: thus begins The Childhood of Jesus, J. M. Coetzee’s enigmatic novel about a forty-five-year-old man named Simón on a journey with his five-year-old charge, David. Among the astonishments of this story—the latest in a four-decade career devoted to narrative invention—are uncharacteristically candid expressions of love. A merciless chronicler of human frailty, Coetzee has until now denied love the clarity that he reserves for injustice or mortality, choking it into forms both oblique and violent. But in his latest work, a demi-allegory about the Christ-child, the unalloyed love between Simón and David announces a renewed and welcome attention to emotion from a writer whose affective gifts have been underserved by arid recent experiments such as Diary of a Bad Year (2007) and Summertime (2009). The Childhood of Jesus takes readers into an unnerving future world where alienation is both revealed and resolved through encounters with literature. A tale suspended in medias res and bound together by serried contests between imagination and ethics, Coetzee’s latest work suggests that the communion of souls arises from the world-making power of novels themselves.
The Childhood of Jesus takes place in an indeterminate time in the fictional Spanish-speaking town of Novilla, where a new life awaits those who, like Simón and David, have voyaged across [End Page 643] the sea for unknown reasons and left behind their past. The inn in question is Novilla’s Relocation Center, where Simón unsuccessfully requests a room for himself and David. Explaining to a staff member named Ana that mysterious occurrences have separated the child from his parents, Simón admits that while David is “Not my grandson, not my son. We are not related” (2), he is nevertheless honor-bound to uphold his commitment to the boy: “I promised David I would find his mother” (18). The promises and conflicts of kinship provide the ensuing story with its scant body of events; this novel lacks the urgency of Age of Iron’s odyssey through apartheid-torn Cape Town or the intricate dance of politics and romance that drives Diary of a Bad Year. Simón’s monotonous job unloading grain as a stevedore makes him yearn for efficiency and progress; his desire finds no support in Novilla, whose inhabitants prefer the stasis of unending “goodwill” (57) over social or technological advancement. Bread without salt, conversation without irony, sex without passion: Simón’s sense of the new life as “too placid for his taste, too lacking in ups and downs, in drama and tension” (64) winks at the reader stymied by Coetzee’s apparently flat narrative design.
When Simón spies a stranger named Inés, powerful intuition compels him to request an audience with her. In an elegant room whose wallpaper bears the motif of a lily—the traditional Catholic symbol for the Virgin Mary—Simón exhorts the unmarried, childless Inés to claim David as her own:
“We have only one mother, each of us. Will you be that one and only mother to him? . . .
. . . Please believe me—please take it on faith—this is not a simple matter. The boy is without mother. What that means I cannot explain to you because I cannot explain it to myself. Yet I promise you, if you will simply say Yes, without forethought, without afterthought, all will become clear to you, as clear as day, or so I believe. Therefore: will you accept this child as yours?”(75)
Inés accedes “without forethought, without afterthought” and takes David from Simón, who finds himself with “nothing left to build his life around” (90). To combat his grief over the child’s absence, as acutely felt as the loss of “a limb or perhaps even his [End Page 644] heart” (90), Simón hunts for solace in the intellectual (a philosophy class in phenomenology only irritates him) and then in the sensual (comically, he fails to...