This was Indiespensible Number 42 from October 2013. I was excited to get a book by a Nobel Laureate and two-time Booker Prize winner even though I have only read one of his other books, Summertime, which I read shortly before we started the blog. I quite enjoyed it, from what I remember. I have many of Coetzee’s other books, of course, but haven’t read any others. I was looking forward to being forced to read another of his books sooner rather than later, despite the fact that this one is billed as “an eerie allegorical tale.” It’s mostly the allegorical part that worried me, but I’m never one to shy away from a reading challenge, not really.
I’ve read just about half of The Childhood of Jesus, and there has been no appearance of the titular member of the Holy Trinity as of yet. So far, there has been a lot of talking, and a little bit of action. As the novel opens, we meet Simón and David, two refugees who have just arrived in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country and received new names, birth dates, and housing. David is a five-year-old boy, and Simón is an adult who met David on the boat from their homeland after David was separated from his mother. Simón promised to help David find his mother, despite the fact that Simón has never met the woman before. He finds the people who live in his adopted country very pleasant but not especially helpful in his mission to find David’s mother. He does find a job as a stevedore on the docks and a place to live. The job is very reminiscent of The Myth of Sissyphus in that Simón spends his days hauling bags of grain out of the hold of a variety of ships. Somehow this job is never done, and when Simón mentions that perhaps there would be a more efficient way of getting the bags out of the hold of these ships, like say with machinery, he is met with resistance from the foreman and his fellow stevedores: Says Eugenio, a coworker, “’Our friend Simón says that we should get machines to do our work for us, because history so ordains. But it is not history that tells us to give up honest labour, it is idleness and the lure of idleness… (116).’” I think Coetzee may be a fan of the working man. Or maybe he just really dislikes lazy people. I have no idea what Simón’s prior profession was before coming to the unnamed country, but I don’t think he was a manual laborer. Not that it’s important.
One day, David and Simón go for a ride on the bus and find themselves at La Residencia, a more upscale building that has tennis courts and doesn’t allow children. Simón sees a young woman playing tennis with two men, and knows, just knows, that this is the woman meant to be David’s mother. Not that she is his actual mother, just that she is meant to be his new one. Turns out her name is Inés, and those two men are her brothers. She takes up Simón on his request to have her begin caring for David, and even gives up his apartment so Inés has someplace to life with her new “son.” Simón is surprised to discover that he misses David and is concerned that Inés is not raising him correctly. He has maintained contact with the pair, though it’s obvious to all that Inés is not thrilled with his ongoing presence in her life. I have no idea how all this is going to pan out, though I’m pretty sure David is never going to be reunited with his actual mother, and that the closest thing to a real family he and Simón are going to find in their new country is each other. I hope Inés and her brothers let these two be together.
I’m essentially positive that I’m not going to figure out the allegory at the heart of this novel. The story is so simple and the writing is so transparent that I know I’m just scratching the surface. And this book didn’t come with the author interview that usually accompanies Indiespensible books, which I’ve found helpful in making the more difficult books the lovely people at Powell’s send me less opaque. Apparently Coetzee is a notorious recluse, so no interview for me, when I really wanted one. I just read the New York Times review of The Childhood of Jesus, written by Joyce Carol Oates. She doesn’t even know for sure what Coetzee is up to in this book. That, for some reason, makes me feel a lot better.
More to come next week. Hopefully I will have a big revelation and be able to explain the whole thing to you guys. In the meantime, have a great weekend.