Friday, March 1, 2013

The Childhood of Jesus by J M Coetzee Text Publishing

The Childhood of Jesus

by J M Coetzee

"The child is silent. For a while he too is silent. Then he speaks. ‘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?’ "

There have been plenty of books written by authors that have won the Booker Prize. Some, in this writer’s opinion are bolllocks. Does that sound harsh. Does it sound rude. Am I just being an enfant terrible, pushing against those corporate pricks that attach awards to books to sell more product, like movie makers attach their Oscar Nominations, or winemakers attach their show medals. How does the notoriety of one of the world’s most distinguished prizes for literature give any clue as to why you should read this or any prize winning book?

Well, it doesn’t. So what I want you to do is forget that this particular author, J M Coetzee, has won the Booker Prize twice and, 10 years ago, the Nobel Prize for Literature. Clear your mind of the media noise. Pretend you just found this on the shelf, in a plain cover, with no reference points to his great 1999 work Disgrace, or even his latest 2007’s Diary of a Bad Year or even his fictionalised memoir Summertime of 2009.

Well, this is what I did. And this is what I found. The Childhood of Jesus is narrated in present tense, it’s located in no identifiable time or place, and possibly actually in the afterlife. Simón, 45yrs David, aged around 5yrs, turn up at a relocation centre in some undetermined Spanish-speaking country, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and in search of shelter. David is not Simón’s son, but Simón insists he is his guardian. And so they are placed in an empty hostel room. Simón becomes a dockside worker, hauling grain sacks at the city wharves.

“Why are we here?” asks the boy. “I don’t know what to say,” Simón replies. “We are here for the same reason everyone else is. We have been given a chance to live and we have accepted that chance. It is a great thing, to live.”.

As the book unfolds we learn that their arrival follows a sea voyage which wiped them clean of all memories of their old life. On board, the boy carried a letter in a pouch around his neck, that may have identified his family. Yet this gets lost. Simón, though, is set on tracking down the boy’s mother somehow. David makes friends with a boy called Fidel and a carthorse at the wharves he calls El Rey. Simón strikes up a sexual but low-key relationship with Fidel’s mother, Elena — for in this new country, there is no love, no desire, just goodwill, rationality and a dull, vegetarian diet, to his frustration. Then Simón sees a woman, aged about 30, playing tennis, and he is convinced that she must be David’s mother. Inexplicably, the woman, Ynes, accepts — and takes over Simón’s flat. David is a strange, self-possessed, convinced that he can do anything. At school, his behaviour is considered disruptive and he is sent away to a residential reformatory — but escapes. Simón and Ynes join forces to run away and start a new life in a distant town called Estrellita (Little Star). And there the novel ends, unexplained. This is it. What does it mean. Why is it there. I’m confused.

It’s a puzzling tale presented in the most level way, with much of the narration presented through dialogue. The prose is the clear and flat style that Coetzee has perfected, which can seem artless but is modernity it’s self. It’s like Le Courbusier was with architecture – stark, functional and yet beautiful in its simplicity and cleanliness. Coetzee is the master of spareness and thrif.

One one plain here is the childhood of Jesus, translated to another world. Jesus was of the House of David, of course. This mother, who is yet not his mother, is in some form the Virgin. When David first arrives with Simón, they’re informed “There are no rooms free.” When he witnesses violence at the docks, he tells Simón: “You must never fight” and does not flinch when Simón “feints a slap to his cheek”. When a schoolmaster challenges him to write “I must tell the truth” on the blackboard, he writes instead: “Yo soy la verdad. I am the truth.” (cf. John, 14.6) When the horse, El Rey, is put down, Simón tells David he has gone to another world where there is no more weeping. “ ‘No more weeping,’ says the boy, and perks up, and even gives a jaunty little smile.” (Isaiah 25.8, Revelations 21.4). And on it goes.

In a sense this is Coetzee modus operandi of late. He’s crossing genres: essays become novels; memoirs to fiction. Then again Adelaide 73 year old author has recently men to go into teaching small children. “It will be good for you, good for your soul, to be with small children,” he told his audience. “Most of the people you deal with in your work are not real human beings but shadowy figures playing roles and wearing masks … Children are never anything but their full human selves.” Here, when Simón asks Elena what good is a new life if we are not transfigured by it, she replies that he should take his lead from children who live in the present: “Instead of waiting to be transfigured, why not try to be like a child again?” Alternately, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18.3).

What I don’t get is what was the point of all this. If the story of Jesus is just a story to provide backfill to the Man that because the scourge of the Romans, The Jewish Priests, the leader of Christians and the hated of other religions then what’s the point. Why reinvent the story. Actually what’s really going on here? Why was this written? Really, tell us - cos I’m lost !

Overall this novel is a lucid, frustrating, confusing, beautiful mess. Or as I said earlier possibly a load of literacy bollocks!

No comments:

Post a Comment