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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 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.
Reviewer: Scott Esposito
The man at the gate points them towards a low, sprawling building in the middle distance. ‘If you hurry,’ he says, ‘you can check in before they close their doors for the day.’
They hurry. Centro de Reubicación Novilla, says the sign. Reubicación: what does that mean? Not a word he has learned.
The office is large and empty. Hot too – even hotter than outside. fitioned by panes of frosted glass. Against the wall is an array of filing drawers in varnished wood.
Suspended over one of the partitions is a sign: Recién Llegados, the words stencilled in black on a rectangle of cardboard. The clerk behind the counter, a young woman, greets him with a smile.
‘Good day,’ he says. ‘We are new arrivals.’ He articulates the words slowly, in the Spanish he has worked hard to master. ‘I am looking for employment, also for a place to live.’ He grips the boy under the armpits and lifts him so that she can see him properly. ‘I have a child with me.’
The girl reaches out to take the boy’s hand. ‘Hello, young man!’ she says. ‘He is your grandson?’
‘Not my grandson, not my son, but I am responsible for him.’
‘A place to live.’ She glances at her papers. ‘We have a room free here at the Centre that you can use while you look for something better. It won’t be luxurious, but perhaps you won’t mind that. As for employment, let us explore that in the morning – you look tired, I am sure you want to rest. Have you travelled far?’
‘We have been on the road all week. We have come from Belstar, from the camp. Are you familiar with Belstar?’
‘Yes, I know Belstar well. I came through Belstar myself. Is that where you learned your Spanish?’
‘We had lessons every day for six weeks.’
‘Six weeks? You are lucky. I was in Belstar for three months. I almost perished of boredom. The only thing that kept me going was the Spanish lessons. Did you by any chance have señora Piñera as a teacher?’
‘No, our teacher was a man.’ He hesitates. ‘May I raise a different matter? My boy’ – he glances at the child – ‘is not well. Partly it is because he is upset, confused and upset, and hasn’t been eating properly. He found the food in the camp strange, didn’t like it. Is there anywhere we can get a proper meal?’
‘How old is he?’
‘Five. That is the age he was given.’
‘And you say he is not your grandson.’
‘Not my grandson, not my son. We are not related. Here’ – he takes the two passbooks from his pocket and proffers them.
She inspects the passbooks. ‘These were issued in Belstar?’
‘Yes. That is where they gave us our names, our Spanish names.’
She leans over the counter. ‘David – that’s a nice name,’ she says. ‘Do you like your name, young man?’
The boy regards her levelly but does not reply. What does she see? A slim, pale-faced child wearing a woollen coat buttoned to the throat, grey shorts covering his knees, black lace-up boots over woollen socks, and a cloth cap at a slant.
‘Don’t you find those clothes very hot? Would you like to take off your coat?’
The boy shakes his head.
He intervenes. ‘The clothes are from Belstar. He chose them himself, from what they had to offer. He has become quite attached to them.’
‘I understand. I asked because he seemed a bit warmly dressed for a day like today. Let me mention: we have a depository here at the Centre where people donate clothing that their children have outgrown. It is open every morning on weekdays. You are welcome to help yourself. You will find more variety than at Belstar.’
‘Also, once you have filled in all the necessary forms you can draw money on your passbook. You have a settlement allowance of four hundred reals. The boy too. Four hundred each.’
‘Now let me show you to your room.’ She leans across and whispers to the woman at the next counter, the counter labelled Trabajos. The woman pulls open a drawer, rummages in it, shakes her head.
‘A slight hitch,’ says the girl. ‘We don’t seem to have the key to your room. It must be with the building supervisor. The supervisor’s name is señora Weiss. Go to Building C. I will draw you a map. When you find señora Weiss, ask her to give you the key to C-55. Tell her that Ana from the main office sent you.’
‘Wouldn’t it be easier to give us another room?’
‘Unfortunately C-55 is the only room that is free.’
‘Yes. Is there somewhere we can eat?’
‘Again, speak to señora Weiss. She should be able to help you.’
‘Thank you. One last question: Are there organizations here that specialize in bringing people together?’
‘Bringing people together?’
‘Yes. There must surely be many people searching for family members. Are there organizations that help to bring families together – families, friends, lovers?’ ‘No, I’ve never heard of such an organization.’ Partly because he is tired and disoriented, partly because the map the girl has sketched for him is not clear, partly because there are no signposts, it takes him a long time to find Building C and the office of señora Weiss. The door is closed. He knocks. There is no reply.
He stops a passer-by, a tiny woman with a pointy, mouse-like face wearing the chocolate-coloured uniform of the Centre. ‘I am looking for señora Weiss,’ he says.
‘She’s off,’ says the young woman, and when he does not understand:: ‘Off for the day. Come back in the morning.’
‘Then perhaps you can help us. We are looking for the key to room C-55.’
The young woman shakes her head. ‘Sorry, I don’t handle keys.’
They make their way back to the Centro de Reubicación. The door is locked. He raps on the glass. There is no sign of life inside. He raps again.
‘I’m thirsty,’ whines the boy.
‘Hang on just a little longer,’ he says. ‘I will look for a tap.’
The girl, Ana, appears around the side of the building. ‘Were you knocking?’ she says. Again he is struck: by her youth, by the health and freshness that radiate from her.
‘Señora Weiss seems to have gone home,’ he says. ‘Is there not something you can do? Do you not have a – what do you call it? – a llave universal to open our room?’
‘Llave maestra. There is no such thing as a llave universal. If we had a llave universal all our troubles would be over. No, señora Weiss is the only one with a llave maestra for Building C. Do you perhaps have a friend who can put you up for the night? Then you can come back in the morning and speak to señora Weiss.’
‘A friend who can put us up? We arrived on these shores six weeks ago, since when we have been living in a tent in a camp out in the desert. How can you expect us to have friends here who will put us up?’
Ana frowns. ‘Go to the main gate,’ she orders. ‘Wait for me outside the gate. I will see what I can do.’
They pass through the gate, cross the street, and sit down in the shade of a tree. The boy nestles his head on his shoulder. ‘I’m thirsty,’ he complains. ‘When are you going to find a tap?’
‘Hush,’ he says. ‘Listen to the birds.’
They listen to the strange birdsong, feel the strange wind on their skins.
Ana emerges. He stands up and waves. The boy gets to his feet too, arms stiffly by his sides, thumbs clenched in his fists.
‘I’ve brought some water for your son,’ she says. ‘Here, David, drink.’
The child drinks, gives the cup back to her. She puts it in her bag. ‘Was that good?’ she asks.
‘Good. Now follow me. It’s quite a walk, but you can look on it as exercise.’
Swiftly she strides along the track across the parkland. An attractive young woman, no denying that, though the clothes she wears hardly become her: a dark, shapeless skirt, a white blouse tight at the throat, flat shoes.
By himself he might be able to keep up with her, but with the child in his arms he cannot. He calls out: ‘Please – not so fast!’ She ignores him. At an ever-increasing distance he follows her across the park, across a street, across a second street.
Before a narrow, plain-looking house she pauses and waits. ‘This is my place,’ she says. She unlocks the front door. ‘Follow me.’
She leads them down a dim corridor, through a back door, down rickety wooden stairs, into a small yard overgrown with grass and weeds, enclosed on two sides by a wooden fence and on the third by chain-link wire.
‘Have a seat,’ she says, indicating a rusty cast-iron chair half covered in grass. ‘I’ll get you something to eat.’
He has no wish to sit. He and the boy wait by the door.
The girl re-emerges bearing a plate and a pitcher. The pitcher holds water. The plate holds four slices of bread spread with margarine. It is exactly what they had for breakfast at the charity station.
‘As a new arrival you are legally required to reside in approved lodgings, or else at the Centre,’ she says. ‘But it will be all right if you spend your first night here. Since I am employed at the Centre, we can argue that my home counts as approved lodging.’
‘That’s very kind of you, very generous,’ he says.
‘There are some leftover building materials in that corner.’ She points. ‘You can make yourself a shelter, if you like. Shall I leave you to it?’
He stares at her, nonplussed. ‘I’m not sure I understand,’ he says. ‘Where exactly will we be spending the night?’
‘Here.’ She indicates the yard. ‘I’ll come back in a while and see how you are getting on.’
The building materials in question are half a dozen sheets of galvanized iron, rusted through in places – old roofing, no doubt – and some odds and ends of timber. Is this a test? Does she really mean that he and the child should sleep out in the open? He waits for her promised return, but she does not come. He tries the back door: it is locked. He knocks; there is no response.
What is going on? Is she behind the curtains, watching to see how he will react?
They are not prisoners. It would be an easy matter to scale the wire fence and make off. Is that what they should do; or should he wait and see what will happen next?
He waits. By the time she reappears the sun is setting.
‘You haven’t done much,’ she remarks, frowning. ‘Here.’ She hands him a bottle of water, a hand towel, a roll of toilet paper; and, when he looks at her questioningly: ‘No one will see you.’
‘I have changed my mind,’ he says. ‘We will go back to the Centre. There must be a public room where we can spend the night.’
‘You can’t do that. The gates at the Centre are closed. They close at six.’
Exasperated, he strides over to the stack of roofing, drags out two sheets, and leans them at an angle against the wooden fence. He does the same with third and fourth sheets, making a rude lean-to. ‘Is that what you have in mind for us?’ he says, turning to her. But she is gone.
‘This is where we are going to sleep tonight,’ he tells the boy. ‘It will be an adventure.’
‘I’m hungry,’ says the boy.
‘You haven’t eaten your bread.’
‘I don’t like bread.’
‘Well, you will have to get used to it, because that is all there is. Tomorrow we will find something better.’
Mistrustfully the boy picks up a slice of bread and nibbles at it. His fingernails, he notices, are black with dirt.
As the last daylight wanes, they settle down in their shelter, he on a bed of weeds, the boy in the crook of his arm. Soon the boy is asleep, his thumb in his mouth. In his own case sleep is slow in coming. He has no coat; in a while the cold begins to seep up into his body; he begins to shiver.
It is not serious, it is only cold, it will not kill you, he says to himself. The night will pass, the sun will rise, the day will come. Only let there not be crawling insects. Crawling insects will be too much.
He is asleep.
In the early hours he wakes up, stiff, aching with cold. Anger wells up in him. Why this pointless misery? He crawls out of the shelter, gropes his way to the back door, and knocks, first discreetly, then more and more loudly.
A window opens above; by moonlight he can faintly make out the girl’s face. ‘Yes?’ she says. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘Everything is wrong,’ he says. ‘It is cold out here. Will you please let us into the house.’
There is a long pause. Then: ‘Wait,’ she says.
He waits. Then: ‘Here,’ says her voice.
An object falls at his feet: a blanket, none too large, folded in four, made of some rough material, smelling of camphor.
‘Why do you treat us like this?’ he calls out. ‘Like dirt?’
The window thuds to.
He crawls back into the shelter, wraps the blanket around himself and the sleeping child.
He is woken by a clamour of birdsong. The boy, still sound asleep, lies turned away from him, his cap under his cheek. His own clothes are damp with dew. He dozes away again. When next he opens his eyes the girl is gazing down on him. ‘Good morning,’ she says. ‘I have brought you some breakfast. I have to leave soon. When you are ready I will let you out.’
‘Let us out?’
‘Let you out through the house. Please be quick. Don’t forget to bring the blanket and the towel.’
He wakes the child. ‘Come,’ he says, ‘time to get up. Time for breakfast.’
They pee side by side in a corner of the yard.
Breakfast turns out to be more bread and water. The child disdains it; he himself is not hungry. He leaves the tray untouched on the step. ‘We are ready to go,’ he calls out.
The girl leads them through the house into the empty street. ‘Goodbye,’ she says. ‘You can come back tonight if you need to.’
‘What about the room you promised at the Centre?’
‘If the key can’t be found, or the room has been taken in the meantime, you can sleep here again. Goodbye.’
‘Just a minute. Can you help us with some money?’ Thus far he has not had to beg, but he does not know where else to turn.
‘I said I would help you, I didn’t say I would provide you with money. For that you will have to go to the offices of the Asistencia Social. You can catch a bus in to the city. Be sure to take your passbook along, and your proof of residence. Then you can draw your relocation allowance. Alternatively you can find a job and ask for an advance. I won’t be at the Centre this morning, I have meetings, but if you go there and tell them you are looking for a job and want un vale, they will know what you mean. Un vale. Now I really must run.’
The track he and the boy follow across the empty parklands turns out to be the wrong one; by the time they reach the Centre the sun is already high in the sky. Behind the Trabajos counter is a woman of middle age, stern-faced, her hair drawn back over her ears and tied tightly behind.
‘Good morning,’ he says. ‘We checked in yesterday. We are new arrivals, and I am looking for work. I understand you can give me un vale.’
‘Vale de trabajo,’ says the woman. ‘Show me your passbook.’
He gives her his passbook. She inspects it, returns it. ‘I will write you a vale, but as for the line of work you do, that is up to you to decide on.’
‘Have you any suggestions for where I should begin? This is foreign territory to me.’
‘Try the docks,’ says the woman. ‘They are usually on the lookout for workers. Catch the Number 29 bus. It leaves from outside the main gate every half-hour.’
‘I don’t have money for buses. I don’t have money at all.’
‘The bus is free. All buses are free.’
‘And a place to stay? May I raise the question of a place to stay? The young lady who was on duty yesterday, Ana she is called, reserved a room for us, but we haven’t been able to gain access.’
‘There are no rooms free.’
‘There was a room free yesterday, room C-55, but the key was mislaid. The key was in the care of señora Weiss.’
‘I know nothing about that. Come back this afternoon.’
‘Can’t I speak to señora Weiss?’
‘There is a meeting of senior staff this morning. Señora Weiss is at the meeting. She will be back in the afternoon.’
J.M. Coetzee is a masterful storyteller. The Childhood of Jesus is an amazing novel, told mostly through compelling dialog. It is an excellent book.
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