The Gospel According to JM Coetzee

Like the rest of his fiction,the South African author’s new novel is about the unsettling enigma of arrival

Written by Steven G. Kellman | Published:April 13, 2013 12:14 am

Book: The Childhood of Jesus

Author: J. M. Coetzee

Publisher: Harvill Secker

288 pages

Price: Rs 799

Throughout a productive career that has spanned five decades,yielded 22 books and earned a Nobel Prize,J. M. Coetzee has specialized in dramas of dislocation,unsettling fictions whose characters and readers are made to feel like strangers in a strange land. Moving from his native South Africa to England and then to the US and back to South Africa before relocating to Australia,Coetzee has repeatedly encountered what V.S. Naipaul calls “the enigma of arrival.” His latest novel focuses on two newcomers,a man and a boy,who arrive in a city — called Novilla — that is foreign to them and the reader.

Not the least of the enigmas confronting a reader is the book’s title. Unlike Colm Tóibín’s 2012 novel The Testament of Mary or Simon Callow’s one-man show The Man Jesus,currently on stage in London,The Childhood of Jesus is not overtly a retelling of the New Testament. It lacks any character named Jesus,Mary,or Joseph,and it is not set in ancient Jerusalem. However,it does feature a child with exceptional talents,a mother who is a virgin,and enough scattered allusions to bread,wine,fish,and even — during a discussion of cannibalism — consubstantiation to allow an earnest exegete to reduce the book to Christian allegory. However,that would come at the cost of enigma,the traces of truth that cause one to turn page after tantalising page in quest of clarification.

Everyone in Novilla comes from somewhere else,though somehow memories of earlier lives are erased. A man given the name Simón and judged to be 45 years old assumes responsibility for five-year-old David,a fellow passenger on the boat to Novilla. During the voyage,David lost a letter identifying his mother,and he can no longer remember her name. Despite his own difficulties finding housing,work,and food in Novilla,a city in which a kind of bland benevolence has displaced passion,Simón takes on the task of finding David’s mother. Simón is convinced that his intuition will allow him to identify her as soon as he sees her,and when,walking past a tennis court,he spots an unmarried player named Inés,he is certain that she is the one. He persuades Inés to take custody of David,whom she loves immediately and without reservation. However,Inés finds Simón repugnant and,despite his fondness for the boy,tries to keep the man away.

No reference is ever made to their native tongues,but when they first arrive in Novilla,both Simón and David are given lessons in Spanish,the only language spoken there. As Simón explains to David: “Everyone comes to this country as a stranger. I came as a stranger. You came as a stranger. . . . But now we are all in the same boat together. So we have to get along with each other. One of the ways in which we get along is by speaking the same language. That is the rule.” So oblivious is everyone to languages other than Spanish — especially the language in which this novel was written — that when David asks Simón the meaning of a song he has learned,he replies: “I don’t know. I don’t speak English.” Coetzee’s reader will surely note Simón’s linguistic ignorance,since the song is Der Erlkönig,Franz Schubert’s musical setting of Goethe’s poem.

After a six-week course,Simón is more or less able to converse in Spanish,but he never overcomes a feeling of missing nuances when others speak. The dialogue that constitutes much of The Childhood of Jesus is rendered in English,but since it is supposed to represent Spanish,a reader cannot help feeling forced to process this perplexing novel through a linguistic scrim. Coetzee,who grew up between two languages,English and Afrikaans,and wrote a dissertation on an Irishman,Samuel Beckett,who switched to French,has long been attentive to the gap created by linguistic choices. In his new novel,Spanish reinforces the enigmas of communication.

Because of Simón’s imperfect command of Spanish and the novelty of Novilla’s customs,The Childhood of Jesus poses fundamental questions that someone secure in the culture would take for granted. At one point,David misidentifies Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto as Plato,and much of the novel proceeds as Platonic dialogues about labour,spirituality,sexuality,numbers,death and other basic concepts. Precocious David learns to read by absorbing Don Quixote,at first using its pages as a pretext to manufacture his own stories. Simón objects. “For real reading you have to submit to what is written on the page,” he advises. “You have to give up your own fantasies.” Anyone willing to attend to what Coetzee — not Matthew,Mark,Luke,or John — puts on the page will be rewarded with the extraordinary,

exhilarating experience of tilting with enigmas.

Kellman is the author of The Translingual Imagination and Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth

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