The Short Version: A young boy and an older man arrive in a predominantly Spanish town after a long boat ride. The man is trying to help the boy find his mother while, at the same time, trying to figure out how to fit in with his new society. The boy might be far more gifted and special than anyone realizes. And perhaps people just aren’t ready for change.
The Review: This book cannot be called The Childhood of Jesus for no reason. Although Christ is never mentioned – actually, the basic concepts of any theism are never mentioned, beyond the existence of a single God – there is an overwhelming sense that this story is some kind of riff on the story behind the man who’s come to be known as Jesus Christ. But it is also, very importantly, not a story about Jesus. Or about religion, really. Mysticism (meant not in the Alistair Crowley way but in the spiritual, magical way) plays a major part in this novel but so too does philosophy.
I haven’t read Coetzee since I read Waiting for the Barbarians in high school. I remember only pieces of it – mainly that it was unlike anything else I’d read to that point, that it wasn’t what I expected, that the prose felt somehow like one of those adult secrets that I was only just getting a glimpse of at age 17. His prose still reads like that, I’m happy to say – the intervening eight years have done little to dispel the sense that I am privy, when I read his work, to something I do not yet have all the faculties to understand. And that, in fact, is rather the underlying thread of this whole book: frustrating glimpses into something we cannot fully grasp because it cannot be fully explained to us and so we either allow ourselves not to know or we impose concepts upon it in order to rationalize and understand and shove back the gibbering terror that lies just beyond the border of reason.
That may be an overstatement but that’s also exactly what religion and philosophy are for: they shine a light out in the darkness, they provide some tether to a quote-unquote ‘tangible’ concept from which we can base our lives. Even my own personal belief system, that of atheistic existentialism, is a concept in which I self-professedly believe.
What, then, do I believe about this novel? This complex, misty, oblique novel? (I’d wager that what follows could be considered, by those inclined, as SPOILERS, although I’m not sure such things actually exist for this novel.)
I believe that Simón and David are dead. That all of these characters are dead. The boat that brings them over, to their new lives – this is an appropriation of Charon’s boat across the Styx. They have no real memory of the lives they lived before traveling – even the letter David carried, which supposedly held information about his past, was lost in transit. There’s reference, just once, to the boat having capsized or sunk – is that the truth? It’s unclear. There’s not much that is terribly clear in this new life except that everyone has become somewhat Huxleyian and/or lobotomized. Desires, passions, wants – they’re a thing of the past. Instead, everyone is rational and pretty happy with the ordinary lives they’re leading. Simón struggles with this – he seeks passion, he seeks progress – but he is stymied at every turn by equally strong arguments for the opposite. He attends a philosophy class that is devoted to the joke of all philosophy classes: “What makes this a chair?” and walks out – but his friends turn his arguments against him, making his frustrations at their simplicity seem equally as baffling as said simplicity.
But it is David – this imaginative, gifted child – who shakes things up the most. He hints at having strange powers – the ability to raise the dead, to read and write without trying, the powers of a magician – but are they just the normal ramblings of an imaginative child? He questions authority, he inspires love and compassion in nearly everyone he meets – but is he just a really nice kid? I am not a religious person in the slightest and I deeply distrust charismatic leaders (yes, even though I voted for our most recent one, twice) – but this is something else, entirely. David represents, in ways that cannot fully be articulated, a challenge to the orthodoxy present in this city and world and he does so… well, he does so without seeming to, or meaning to. He simply does, by nature of his very existence. The joke of the child who constantly asks “why?” plays out far more interestingly here than in every family comedy ever made – and Coetzee seems to still hold onto what we (as a populace) have lost touch with: a child’s question should never be taken for granted. A child’s mind has the ability to reshape the world and just because centuries of men have established that (as a passage late in the book explains so eloquently) two plus two equals four, that does not mean that that logic cannot be questioned and shaken. A child does not “know better” and, as a result, can perhaps know better than those who would teach him/her.
Does the book’s plot have much, if anything, to say for itself? No it does not. They try to find David’s mother, they try to fit into this society, they try to keep David safe. But these plot developments are not why Coetzee wrote the book. Instead, he wants to look at the way we understand concepts – from massive, basic concepts like mathematics and language to more nuanced concepts like family and love. Only once you grapple with those ideas does the minimalist plot resolve itself into something more than an excuse to bring up those ideas in the first place.
Rating: 5 out of 5. I think, as I attempt to grapple with how to rate a book like this – it feels nearly impossible, to explain how it could match against books of similar ratings and rankings and types – of a Stephen King quote: “Go then, there are other worlds than these.” A passing comment in the midst of this novel mentions that in this place they must learn Spanish – but in the next, perhaps, it will be Chinese. Commentary on the rising tides of cultures around the world? Of populations? Is this a story of other worlds or of this one? Or of some world in-between all of them?
It feels almost too pretentious but also entirely fitting that the best way to describe this novel is to say that “there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio…” and perhaps Coetzee, here, is making an effort to consider them.