Review: ‘The Childhood of Jesus’ by J.M. Coetzee (2013)

by K.M. Zahrt

Childhood of Jesus

I once attended a poetry reading by Li Young Lee, where he was asked, “Why do you prefer poetry over fiction?” He responded by saying something close to this: fiction is all cause and effect; poetry digs deeper into experience to a point fiction does not reach. He went on to say that the depth of experience was what interested him.

My reading of Coetzee’s novels would put his work somewhere in between Li Young Lee’s definition of fiction and poetry. Coetzee seems interested in depth of experience to the point where cause and effect begin to take a backseat. This element of his writing is (1) why I like his work and (2) why I think some readers find his work difficult to get through. (The last few times I’ve recommended his books to friends, they’ve been returned unfinished.) Coetzee’s characters are either interested or forced to delve deep into difficult life questions and human experiences. The cause and effect doesn’t always drive the reader through.

Having written that, The Childhood of Jesus, J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, is a nice addition to his body of work, which has already generated two Booker Prizes and the Nobel Prize in Literature. (And I would guess Coetzee’s body of work has generated enough readership that he shouldn’t be worried about losing a few.)

Early in this book, Coetzee starts to play with some interesting ideas.  The following are a few examples. I can’t give you page numbers, because I’m using the ebook. I’ll give you percentages instead.

1.  Simon, the narrator, has some suggestions for his new employer: “‘If you were to bring in a crane,’ [Simon] observes, ‘you could get the unloading done in a tenth of the time. Even a small crane.’

‘You could,’ agrees the foreman. ‘But what would be the point? What would be the point of getting things done in a tenth of the time? It is not as if there is an emergency, a food shortage for example.’

What would be the point? It sounds like a genuine question, not a slap in the face. ‘So that we could devote our energies to some better task,’ he suggests.

‘Better than what? Better than supplying our fellow man with bread?’

He shrugs” (Coetzee, 6%).

2.  Simon is taking care of a boy, David, about whom he talks to his female friend, Ana: “‘[David] is hungry all the time.’

‘Don’t worry. He will adapt.’

‘Adapt to being hungry? Why should he adapt to being hungry when there is no food shortage?’

‘Adapt to a moderate diet, I mean. Hunger is like a dog in your belly: the more you feed it, the more it demands'” (11%).

3.  Simon goes on to admit that his, and David’s, basic needs are being met, but he desires more. He desires more varieties of food and, among other things, more than friendship with Ana. At one point, David asks Simon about wages. Simon says: “‘If the paymaster paid each of us whatever we wanted, he would run out of money.’

‘Why?’

‘Why? Because we all want more than is due to us. That’s human nature. Because we all want more than we are worth'” (18%).

Coetzee already starts to tease out themes — simplicity vs. efficiency; needs vs. desires — that are metaphors, in my view, for the struggles of basic human experience in many contemporary, industrialized, consumption-driven cultures today. In doing so, we can start to recognize Coetzee as author, even if his name wasn’t printed on the cover. The narrative is recognizably Coetzee like Kill Bill is recognizably Tarantino, which is a remarkable achievement for any author. Although this book is not going to challenge Elizabeth Costello or Waiting for the Barbarians at the top of my list of favorites from Coetzee, it is certainly a welcomed addition deserving of a spot.

Disgrace

Finally, if you’re looking for an entry point into Coetzee’s work, watch the 2008 film adaptation of Disgrace. The film does a nice job of capturing Coetzee’s aesthetic in film form. John Malkovich plays the lead. Initially, it was hard to mesh Malkovich with the image of the character that I had in my head (which is the problem with film adaptations), but he does a great job, as usual.

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