Author(s): J. M. Coetzee
The child is silent. For a while he too is silent. Then he speaks. 'Please believe me—please take it on faith—this is not a simple matter. The boy is without mother. What that means I cannot explain to you because I cannot explain it to myself. Yet I promise you, if you will simply say Yes, without forethought, without afterthought, all will become clear to you, as clear as day, or so I believe. Therefore: will you accept this child as yours?' David is a small boy who comes by boat across the ocean to a new country. He has been separated from his parents, and has lost the piece of paper that would have explained everything. On the boat a stranger named Simón takes it upon himself to look after the boy. On arrival they are assigned new names, new birthdates. They know little Spanish, the language of their new country, and nothing about its customs. They have also suffered a kind of forgetting of old attachments and feelings. They are people without a past. Simón's goal is to find the boy's mother. He feels sure he will know her when he sees her. And David? He wants to find his mother too but he also wants to understand where he is and how he fits in. He is a boy who is always asking questions. The Childhood of Jesus is not like any other novel you have read. This beautiful and surprising fable is about childhood, about destiny, about being an outsider. It is a novel about the riddle of experience itself.
A man arrives, with a new name, Simón, and with no memories of his previous life, in a country whose residents have all, like him, arrived there at some time, shedding their histories and learning a new language, a flat ‘Spanish’, which they use without irony or ambiguity. Existence in Novilla, like Coetzee’s writing, is spare, and abraded of connotation; things have no significance beyond their purpose. The society is founded on good will, respect and the meeting of everyone’s needs; there is enough but no more: no excess, no passion, no longing, no dissatisfaction. Is this the best of all possible worlds? Perhaps Simón has not been washed sufficiently ‘clean’ in his passage to the new life: he feels that human nature requires more intensity than Novilla provides. He brings with him a young boy, ‘David’, who has lost his papers, and who Simon has promised to reunite with his mother. Simon ‘recognises’ David’s mother as the implausible Inès, and hands both the boy and his apartment over to her. Inès infantilises David, and, when he is to be sent to an institution because he cannot/will not accept the basic assumptions of commonality, such as the symbolic assumptions of language and numbers, Simón and Ines flee with him into the hinterland, where reality is even ‘thinner’ than in Novilla and David exhibits disturbingly messianic qualities as they head towards a ‘new life’. Philosophical and ethical questions are raised throughout the book, which turns its back on the possibility of answers, making the whole thing a sort of opaque allegory without any stable referent. In its refusal to satisfy the reader or to be ‘about’ anything (other than itself), whilst engaging our faculties of thinking and feeling, the book, with all its unsettlingly arbitrary developments, inconsistencies and uncertainties, its ambivalences of clutching and relinquishment, resembles ‘real life’ more than most fiction (which is predicated upon the largely unexamined abstractions we construct to ‘pre-package’ and mediate our experiences). At it core, though, this book explores the problematics of fiction-making: characters are suddenly brought into existence by an author in a world which contains only that which the author has created by naming. The characters are entirely subject to the author's will yet struggle, through exerting themselves upon the author, to effect some sort of autonomy. Coetzee is a writer of great weight and precision, and here he continues to push at the edges of his territory. This book has just been followed by The Schooldays of Jesus, which continues the themes explored in this book.
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Long-listed for International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2015.
'Coetzee is a master we scarcely deserve.' Age '...Coetzee gradually, with great intelligence and skill, brings to extraordinary - possibly divine - life an ostensibly simple story.' Weekend Australian 'A theological and philosophical fable of considerable brilliance, power and wit. Coetzee hasn't done anything as fine and beautifully executed as this since Disgrace.' Canberra Times / Age 'Coetzee's characters play with conflicting ideas in a way that is at once disarmingly simple and maddeningly convoluted. The result is a delightful, stimulating puzzle. The Childhood of Jesus is a beautiful yet complex work that will reward the reader handsomely.' -- Mark Rubbo, Readings 'Beautiful but enigmatic fable, written in clean, fierce, present tense prose, seems set in some sort of afterlife...insistently memorable in its spare evocations, it leaves the reader charmed, intrigued, impressed and curious, with much compulsively to ponder.' Adelaide Advertiser '[A] quiet, haunting novel...Coetzee's calm, emblematic prose lifts the plot into something redolent with metaphor and mystery...Any statement can become a symbol; every event is suffused with potential revelation; something magical is always present and just out of reach...It's a memorable accomplishment, turning the everyday into the almost everlasting.' Weekend Herald (NZ) 'Double Booker Prize-winner Coetzee's fable has a dream-like, Kafkaesque quality. Are we in some kind of heaven, purgatory or simply another staging post of existence? Clear answers are elusive, but this is a riveting, thought-provoking read and surely Coetzee's best novel since Disgrace more than a decade ago.' Daily Mail 'Written with all of Coetzee's penetrating rigour, it will be an early contender for an unprecedented third Booker prize.' Observer 'The Childhood of Jesus represents a return to the allegorical mode that made him famous...a Kafkaesque version of the nativity story...The Childhood of Jesus does ample justice to his giant reputation: it's richly enigmatic, with regular flashes of Coetzee's piercing intelligence.' Guardian '[A] moving but mysterious story of a lost childhood...Is it possible to be deeply affected by a book without really knowing what it's about? Before reading JM Coetzee's new novel I might have said no - but now I'm not so sure...[As] disquieting as it is moving...[All] I can say is that ever since I finished it, it's been going round and round inside my head like nothing else I've read in ages.' Sunday Telegraph 'The sense of calm, furthered by Coetzee's spare prose, is very unsettling...These are not the horrors of Waiting for the Barbarians, this is the horror of banality.' Independent on Sunday 'A breathtaking performance, full of the tears in things and the wonders of which we cannot speak.' -- Peter Craven Sydney Review of Books 'Poignant and compassionate...A tale that is by turns irritating and deeply satisfying, philosophically soaring yet earthy, maddeningly vague and mercilessly precise.' 4.5 stars Good Reading
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