Final Thoughts on J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (by Jill)

childhood of jesus cover


Oh, this book. I zipped right through it, because it’s very readable. Coetzee’s style is effortless and easy, but the content and the currents of meaning bubbling beneath the surface are the stuff of a graduate level seminar. (I think. I’ve never taken one of those. Bethany would know better if she read this book.) I jut learned on Wikipedia that Coetzee is a noted introvert and shunner of publicity and the public life that is his right to claim as a Nobel Laureate. So much for getting finding an interview in which he discusses The Childhood of Jesus, I guess. I’ll just have to muddle through on my own.

In prepping for what I should say about this book today I read a few reviews, both by readers and by professionals. I mentioned that Joyce Carol Oates wrote a review for the New York Times. Benjamin Markovits (another writer) wrote a review for The Guardian, which was quite good. I read a few others, too. The common thread of opinion is that no one is quite sure what Coetzee is up to, and I found that supremely comforting. No one has been able to definitively connect this book’s title to our Lord, Jesus Christ, for me, and Markovits says that “it isn’t really about Jesus, except at some hard-to-pin-down allegorical level.” So that was helpful. Or if not helpful, at least made me feel less like an idiot.

At the end of my last update, Simón had given David to Inés, and was trying to stay away from the “mother” and “son” in order to give them time to develop their bond as such. Simón finds that he misses David quite a lot, and begins to come around again, which Inés seems to resent at first, but later accepts. David begins to develop some rather undesirable personality traits while under Inés’ care. In short, he becomes something of a brat, though there may be more to it than that. Simón insists he go to school, though Inés feels that he is too young. Eventually David is forced to attend school by the government, but he doesn’t fit in well there. His teacher, Señor León, recommends he be sent to Punto Arenas, a boarding school that is described in various ways, a reform school, a school for special students, a breeding ground for criminals. They refuse to send David there, and a car comes and takes him away. He escapes and comes home. He says that he had to get through a barbed wire fence to get home. The people from the school who come to retrieve him say there is no barbed wire, and that everyone at the school loves, David, and desperately want him to come back. Simón and Inés finally see eye-to-eye and agree that David shouldn’t go back to the school. They take off to start a new life in a town hundreds of kilometers away. On the drive they pick up a hitchhiker named Juan. And that’s the end. We don’t see them reach their destination. We don’t find out if Juan is a serial killer who murders them all in their sleep one night, though that seems unlikely in this land of bland, benign people.

One bizarre event that happens is that the stevedores at the docks where Simón works decide to give a crane a try at helping them more efficiently unload their cargo of grain, out of respect for Simón’s opinions about the usefulness of technology. No one really knows how to use the crane, and Eugenio, a secondary character, decides to give it a try. On the first attempt to bring a load of bags off the deck of the ship, Eugenio loses control, and “the swinging load strikes [Simón] in the midriff and knocks him backwards. He staggers against a stanchion, trips over a rope, and tumbles into the space between the quay and the steel plates of the freighter. For a moment he is held there, gripped so tightly that it hurts to breathe. He is intensely aware that the ship has to drift only an inch and he will be crushed like an insect. Then the pressure slackens and he drops feet first into the water (235).” Simón ends up having several broken ribs and a punctured lung. He spends some time in the hospital and then is discharged to recuperate, but ends up going on the run with Inés and David. This seems to me to be a statement against using technology when good old-fashioned brute strength will do just fine. Coetzee has definite opinions about animal rights from what I’ve read, but he doesn’t seem to be anti-technology as far as I can find on the internets. Perhaps that’s something new. Or maybe it’s just a plot device to get Simón unconscious for a few days so he knows nothing about David’s escape from school/juvenile hall.

The last event I wanted to make mention of happens on their flight out of their town, before they pick up Juan the hitchhiker. Señor Daga, a “friend” of the family, gives David a present that he opens when they stop for the night at a motel. It’s a “magic cloak of invisibility,” which of course brings up thoughts of Harry Potter. For a second I thought that David might be some sort of post-apocalyptic Harry Potter figure. The cloak also comes with “magic powder” that David is supposed to set fire to and say the provided spell so he can become invisible. The magic powder ends up being magnesium, and David is temporarily blinded when he gets overzealous with setting it on fire. He also burns his hand. The next morning David “describes rays of green light travelling across his field of vision, cascades of stars (268).” Now this part reminds me of The Matrix Revolutions when Neo has his eyes put out by Agent Smith/Bane, and he develops the ability to see in a different way. I’m just about positive that Coetzee didn’t intend to allude to a Keanu Reeves movie, but I’m quite pleased that I brought this post back around to popular culture of the early twenty-first century, which is something I can discourse about with a fair degree of authority. They get to a doctor a few towns away from where they spend the night, though everyone keeps telling them that for the things that they seek the best place to go is the town they started out in. The doctor says that David’s vision is perfectly fine, and the burn on his hand is minor. And off they go. And now there is yet another question: does David have a special way of seeing now? Or is he merely telling stories again? What is wrong with this kid? Or are the adults the ones with the problems?

And since I always enjoy talking about memory when it comes up, I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this most bizarre aspect of this world the main characters have found themselves in. This land they find themselves in, where they are assigned new names and birthdates, also somehow stripped them of their memories of their former lives. It seems to have happened at the camp in Beltsar where Simón and David stay for six weeks following their arrival on the ship. This is where they are taught rudimentary Spanish, as well, for the language of this place is Spanish, not whatever they spoke where they were before. For a time Simón rails against this loss of his past, while everyone else seems to not mind it, or have at least accepted it. He has a conversation with his neighbor Elena in which he says, “’I place no value on my tired old memories. I agree with you: they are just a burden. No, it is something else that I am reluctant to yield up: not memories themselves but the feel of residence in a body with a past, a body soaked in its past…. What is the good of a new life, if we are not transformed by it, transfigured, as I certainly am not (143)?’” I fail to understand this life, this place that Coetzee has created. Are we not made up of our memories, of our experiences? Is Coetzee trying to make a point about the importance of memory or is he mocking the importance people place on it? I find that the more I think about this book the more questions I have. So I’m going to stop thinking about it now, and move along to the world of southern shrimpers and New York psychiatrists. Next up: PAT CONROY MONTH!!! begins for me with a re-reading of The Prince of Tides, which I haven’t read in over twenty years.

This entry was posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, J.M. Coetzee, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Final Thoughts on J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (by Jill)

  1. bedstrom says:

    My life’s goal is to become a “noted introvert.” Will you be jealous if I tell you I’ve met Coetzee?

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