Jacques Derrida famously read Kafka’s short parable “Before the Law” as being about humanity’s relationship with the modern God. This story involves a man who spends his lifetime trying to gain admittance not to Heaven but to the law, for, as the man says, “everyone strives to reach the Law.” The man asks question after question and tries strategy after strategy, but the law will not let him through its gates; in the end he dies. In his reading of the parable, Derrida makes the law into a kind of secular deity: instead of granting God the status of a singular object whose nature we might endlessly inquire into, he puts the law in God’s place as a thing we may endlessly wonder about but never truly reach.
We may do away with God, but something else will take its place. As a species we need to believe in something. This question of why we need to believe — and what we do believe in, if not God — is a matter that one of Kafka’s great admirers, J. M. Coetzee, has consistently addressed throughout his career. He finds a new approach to it in his latest book, The Childhood of Jesus, showing us a society without belief, indeed without even that sensation of lack on which belief rests.
The book takes place in a city called Novilla, whose people labor efficiently, eat tasteless crackers and beans, watch soccer matches, and enroll in philosophy classes, all seemingly without the desire for any sort of progress or novelty. Novilla is vaguely socialist, though Coetzee leaves it so ill defined that we can’t really call it anything. There is a shadowy, overarching authority that administers society and enforces the rules, but it remains far more ephemeral than do the menacing authority figures that make Kafka so memorable. Into Novilla arrive an aging man named Simón and his young charge, David. They know absolutely nothing about their past, aware only that they have come by boat and that those who reach these shores cannot remember anything of their previous existence.
The plot of The Childhood of Jesus centers on David, who remembers neither of his parents and was taken on by Simón after he lost a letter supposedly containing the details of his mother’s identity. Once Simón establishes himself in Novilla, he immediately becomes obsessed with the search for the boy’s mother. He meets an aristocratic woman named Inés, who lives in a sort of resort called La Residencia (among the book’s many strangely arbitrary details is that everyone in Coetzee’s new world speaks Spanish), and he is immediately convinced that she is the boy’s mother. Yet, after forcing David upon her, Simón begins to have second thoughts: Inés proves a woefully unprepared mother, and, even worse, she cuts Simón off from David.
While the search-for-the-mother narrative develops, Coetzee works a second plotline having to do with Simón’s smoldering needs. One of the key features of Novilla is that no one any longer experiences those passionate, unquenchable urges conjured by sense that something is missing. But Simón does: he desperately wants to find some person or quest to sate his desire. He tries hooking up with a woman, but when he propositions her she chides him for not letting go of a burden that everyone in Novilla is happier without. (They end up having sex, but it’s unmemorable.) Simón also works on the docks, hauling grain; it’s backbreaking, dangerous work, and he tries to get his fellow stevedores to adopt a crane — they could finish their work in much less time, and without all the exertion. But his workmates question whether such so-called progress would make anyone happier. Why strive to change their labors — is their work not honest enough? Does it not serve a good purpose?
Eventually, these narratives come together when David begins attending school. Like so many overly bright students before him, he proves to be a hassle, preferring to do his own thing rather than conform to the dictates of the teacher. In particular, David wants to write in his own private language instead of learning proper Spanish, and he wants to read his schoolbooks in his own way, instead of reading them as the rest of the class does. Simón, who clearly relishes his role undermining authority, now must enforce Novilla’s rules: David must obey the teacher, otherwise he’ll never grow up and become an adult.
This is the philosophical nut at the center of The Childhood of Jesus. In order to participate in society, we must conform: we must accept the common language, adhere to certain ideas of rationality and behavior. This period of indoctrination is known as childhood, and much of our young angst comes from trying to adapt to its constraints while still preserving the passion and irrationality that make life interesting and guarantee our individuality. But what if our society doesn’t value those things, doesn’t see the need for passionate beliefs? What if it tells us to stop asking questions?
These issues have long been at the center of Coetzee’s literary project. His breakthrough title, 1980’s Waiting for the Barbarians, centered around a lowly bureaucrat who dared to stand up for a principle he believed in and was viciously torn apart for his intransigence by the regime he served. His Booker Prize–winning 1999 novel, Disgrace, put anti-authoritarianism into a much less heroic light by telling the story of a womanizing professor who eventually becomes a ridiculous, humiliated exile, destroyed by his antisocial tendencies. Coetzee’s genius is to create plots that explore all sides of rebellion, be it courageous, despicable, absurd, spiritual, or drenched in pathos.
Jesus of Nazareth is, of course, one of the Western tradition’s grandest rebels, possibly the best-known anti-conformist in the history of humanity. The most interesting and seductive part of Coetzee’s new book is how he continually plays with the possibility that David is a Jesus character. Rather pointedly, he makes sure to let us know that Inés is thirty years old and a virgin (a fact that Simón, strangely, shrugs off). Later on, David tells Simón that he has made a miraculous escape from a school for delinquents — is this proof of divinity or just the fantasy of a young boy eager to impress his father figure? Coetzee tantalizes us with suggestive hints that David is divine while remaining coy about any clear statement, yet the ethical and philosophical questions it raises are serious: is it permissible to let certain individuals flaunt society’s rules if they bring us important truths? How willing should we be to make fools of ourselves in pursuit of our beliefs (pointedly, the book David learns to read with is Don Quixote)? Do functional societies require rule breakers, and, if so, what is the proper way to deal with them?
These are essential, eternal questions — witness the cases of Edward Snowden and Chelsea/Bradley Manning for just two contemporary examples — and Coetzee has long pondered them in various guises. In The Childhood of Jesus, he makes a few interesting additions to this edifice. Noteworthy here is that his rebel figure is a young child, something unprecedented in his work. Also, his treatment of the father-son relationship is interesting and, at times, rich. Perhaps best of all are the book’s last fifty or so pages, vintage Coetzee in which Simón and David attempt a desperate escape, and their flight becomes piled with strange happenings and biblical allusions.
Yet on the whole The Childhood of Jesus fails to come together. Philosophizing, which has never been Coetzee’s strong point, is leaned on much too heavily for this book to be a success. There are too many loose strands that never amount to much, too many clumsy, mock-Socratic dialogues that seem thrown in to demonstrate a point. The Nobel laureate is at his best when his books sit at a comfortable remove from both pure realism and pure fabulism, residing in a sort of in-between space where the landscapes are suggestive of actual locations and the characters are defined enough to be more than ciphers, but nothing is certain enough to fully resolve into a recognizable reality. The Childhood of Jesus slips too far into the world of paper-thin walls and pedantic dialogues for it to retain a feeling of a literary, artistic creation. How can we care that much about Simón, when this is the kind of dialogue Coetzee puts in his mouth?
“Consider now history. If history, like climate, were a higher reality, then history would have manifestations which we would be able to feel through our senses. But where are these manifestations?” He looks around. “Which of us has ever had his cap blown off by history?”
When Coetzee shows the cap being blown off, instead of merely talking about it, his novels resonate with a power few authors are capable of. That he has failed to do that here makes all the difference.