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Book Review: The Childhood of Jesus

Penguin Books
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Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee’s new book isn’t actually about Jesus directly, but it’s also more religious than it seems at first blush.

The Childhood of Jesus, the latest book by Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, is a meditation on memory, work, and parenthood that calls to mind the early days of Jesus of Nazareth… or does it?

The first thing to know about The Childhood of Jesus is that it has done a great job of stumping critics and readers. Coetzee is a novelist of ideas – he is often compared to Kafka and wrote his dissertation on Beckett. He wanders into metaphysical and ethical territory that scratches the head more than it touches the heart.

In fact, at a reading in his native Cape Town, Coetzee (pronounced “koot-see”) confessed that the name of Jesus was meant to punctuate, not decorate, his latest 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.”

So there is nothing conventionally “Christian” or even “religious” about this book. Any reader hoping for a tender imagining or note-for-note allegory of the hidden years of Christ will be nonplussed after the first few chapters. Instead, we meet David, a boy separated from his mother on a boat destined for a new world, and Simón, an aging stevedore who decides to look after him.

But perhaps the critics have underestimated just how profoundly religious a vague, cerebral novel can be.

The LA Times declared flatly that The Childhood of Jesus is “not a book about the biblical Jesus but a refugee in a strange country.” A NY Times reviewer called the religious aspect of the book a kind of “red herring.” The New Republic concluded that any reader looking for “even a passing resemblance to the Gospels” will be frustrated “at every turn.” But could such a title really be so incidental to the story? Does Coetzee really have so little to say about Jesus?

As we join up with Simón in his quest to find David’s mother, we encounter some familiar themes, but none of them prima facie reflect the life of Christ. Instead, we see Coetzee contemplating the tepid bureaucracy of socialism and offering asides on sexual passion, food, and work.

But in an early dialogue between David and Simón, the ground shifts. “What are we here for, Simón?” asks David. Simón explains that they are renting a room for a few days until they can move on. “No, I mean, why are we here?” David’s gesture “takes in the room, the Centre, the city of Novilla, everything.” Simón replies that they are there to find David’s mother. “But after we find her, what are we here for?” Simón is baffled. “I don’t know what to say. 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. It is the greatest thing of all.” David asks whether they have to live here – does he mean Novilla, or the world? – to which Simón responds, “Here as opposed to where? There is nowhere else to be but here.”

We also learn that life in the ethereal Novilla is not all it seems. Characters speak about “the old way of thinking,” an old life of “endless dissatisfaction” and “illusion.” The new life, life in Novilla, is a world of altruism and cooperation, a “cloud of goodwill” where everything old must be “forgotten.” People arrive in Novilla washed clean of their former names, identities, and memories.

Coetzee’s preoccupation with meaning, metamorphosis, and memory brings religious realities to the fore – but initially, they seem formless and universal. Joyce Carol Oates, in her review of The Childhood of Jesus, argues that Novilla isn’t a place of any one “religious tradition.” To an extent, she’s right; there are no churches, liturgies, or prayers to speak of.

Yet, Coetzee’s constant use of Biblical phrases and imagery is striking. He writes of the nature of God (pg. 218); the “breath of life,” (pg. 199); the “double nature” of man which partakes of both the real and the ideal (pg. 133); the tendency to deny our own fault “since the beginning of the world” (pg. 180); faith and belief (pgs. 29 and 232); our “endless dissatisfaction” with the world and desire for more (pgs. 63 and 141); imperatives higher than human laws (pg. 256); a woman turning “from virgin to mother” (pg. 63); the sense that “one cannot live on bread alone” (pg. 36); transfiguration and becoming like a child (pg. 143); protecting the poor and saving the oppressed (pg. 246); the acceptance or refusal of salvation (pgs. 145, 226, 239, and 276); being led into temptation (pg. 188); the “good seed” (pg. 246); becoming well again “in three days” (pg. 198); life after death (pgs. 133 and 159); and the “end of weeping” there (pg. 200). This is unmistakably Christian language.

Oates also thinks that if David is an image of the child Jesus, “Coetzee has not fashioned an appropriate early life for him, for David’s concerns are exclusively for himself and not for others.” Again, to an extent, she’s right – David often acts more like a spoiled brat than the only begotten Son of God.

On the other hand, David’s concerns are not at all exclusively about himself: he speaks about one day being “a lifesaver and an escape artist and a magician” (pg. 172), tries to bring the dead back to life (pg. 199), invites strangers to come along with him for their own sake, “not for his” (pgs. 269 and 276), and longs to “give blood” to sick people (pg. 221). David is also constantly revealed as “special”: he speaks with a bizarre sense of authority (even for a five-year-old), barking commands and refusing to say his “real name” (pg. 273); he demands that his own mother has to honor him (pg. 246); he claims that there are features of reality that only he can see (pgs. 178 and 206); he tells a parable about the healing power of faith and selflessness (pg. 147); he doesn’t bat an eye when Simón pretends to strike his cheek (pg. 47); he leads his guardians to places called “little star of the north” and “new hope” (pg. 270); he declares “Yo soy la verdad” – “I am the truth” (pg. 225); he is seen “lifting the hem of his cloak” (pg. 270); and at one point, we’re even told that he holds one hand aloft “in a regal gesture,” naked except for a “cotton loincloth” (pg. 238). In all of this, David is nothing if not a shadow of the child Jesus. (His favorite book is even about Don Quixote, the progenitor of so many literary Christ figures.)

What is Coetzee getting at, exactly? That’s another question, one which readers will have to work out for themselves. One thing seems clear: the critics have it wrong. That captivating man who claimed to be one with God 2,000 years ago remains before our mind’s eye in this book from start to finish – and it’s no red herring.

In fact, Artur Rosman, a blogger at “Cosmos the in Lost,” lists Coetzee as one of the top 10 living religious novelists alongside Ron Hansen and Toni Morrison. “In my mind,” Rosman writes, “J.M. Coetzee is the greatest Christian (why not Catholic?) novelist of our time, because his characters constantly mull over the significance and practices of Christianity. They make the Incarnation strange again by inviting the unsuspecting reader to look at it from new angles….it’s because of sharp observations such as these, because of a novelistic intensity unmatched since Dostoevsky, that Coetzee is the most significant living writer of theological fiction.”

This is precisely what The Childhood of Jesus does: it makes the Incarnation strange again, and risks saying too little on the subject to avoid saying too much. And why not?

Maybe the critics are loath to call Coetzee a theological writer because “theological fiction” has come to mean something it shouldn’t. We need to make room for what Walker Percy once called the “upside-down religious novel” – a novel like The Childhood of Jesus that flips our feet up, brings us face to face with the muck of life, and reluctantly digs through to the other side. There, lying in wait, is a negative image of Revelation, flashing insight into our redemption that – far from being some remote subject in another section of the bookstore – speaks to what is most human in us. 

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