Dan Sandman

26: The childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

In Books, Fiction on 27/06/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. CoetzeeA man and a boy are lost in an imaginary city called Novilla, where the citizens speak Spanish and have lost their memory. The man is taking care of the boy, but the man is not the boy’s father. The boy David is an imaginative child with a creative way of seeing the world, the man Simon is a rational man with a pragmatic world view. Eventually they meet a character called Ines, a privileged woman with two unsettling brothers and a dog. Simon decides, on a hunch, that Ines is David’s real mother and gives over parental responsibility. What ensues is a touching story about bringing up a child, written from a broadly humanistic perspective.

All the novel’s characters are in Novilla to start a new life, and mostly they are content with how things are. Alvero, Simon’s colleague who works as a foreman, represents the values of hard work and is against technological progress. Elena, a music teacher, whose son befriends David, does not value physical relationships or financial rewards. A young man called Eugino attends a college where he is fed on a diet of woolly philosophy. David’s teacher Leon supports an education system where creativity is deemed a defective trait, much to the dislike of Ines.  Each in their own way, Simon, David and Ines do not fit in and so are drawn towards starting a new new life.

Although J.M. Coetzee is renowned for his concise writing, he is equally strong when using literary form. Characters are carefully positioned, the plot is paced well, and intertextuality – putting in another story – is used effectively. Sentences are as long as they need to be, the human reaction being favoured over the scenically descriptive. Characters are formed through action and dialogue, with an occasional assist from an adjective. The plot moves from idea to idea smoothly, comfortably taking advantage of the imaginary land concept. Don Quixote  is referred to almost as a metaphor for the importance of the human imagination. Everything comes together in a thoughtful and satisfying way. Any unanswered questions are left to the reader’s imagination.

In conclusion, if you like your novels to be wrapped up as neatly as an Agatha Christie, this might not be the book for you. Things will not be explained and given a satisfying ending, you will be given the clues and asked to work with them. I would argue that part of the story’s beauty, and why it warrants repeat reading, is that it treats us intelligently. We are not given a detailed description of Novilla, instead the information is subtlety revealed as the story is allowed to evolve.

Very highly recommended.


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