My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"He looks into the boy's eyes. For the briefest of moments he sees something there. He has no name for it. It is like - that is what occurs to him in the moment. Like a fish that wriggles loose as you try to grasp it. But not like a fish - no, like like a fish. Or like like like a fish."
I would have never expected this to happen: here is the first book by J.M. Coetzee that I do not quite like and am unable to recommend, particularly for a reader for whom it would be an introduction to the author's work. The 17 books of the Nobel Prize winner that I have read and reviewed here on Goodreads include such masterpieces of fiction as Disgrace or Waiting for the Barbarians and several great collections of literary criticism writings. My lowest rating among the seventeen books is the three-star one for Slow Man . Alas, The Childhood of Jesus (2013) does not rise to the three-star level.
Middle-aged Simón and five-year-old David arrive in a refugee city of Novilla, somewhere in the Spanish-speaking world. The author tells us that Simón and David may not be the characters' real names and that Simón does not remember or perhaps does not even know where they came from. Their past seems to be a closed book: they only remember being on a boat where the boy had lost a note with his mother's name. They begin their new life in Novilla, where Simón finds a job as a stevedore unloading sacks of grain from ships, and where his first order of business is to find the boy's mother. That he does, but the author strongly suggests that the boy is really a stranger to Inés, the young woman who has been quite randomly chosen by Simón for her role as David's mother.
Roughly the first half of the book describes the life in Novilla, where almost all residents are refugees without any memories of their past lives. This part of the novel is highly non-realistic. For most writers the lack of realism in supposedly realistic prose comes from their deficient writing skills. Of course, with J.M. Coetzee being an absolute master of prose, this is not the reason and the blatant lack of realism must clearly be intentional. Let me go out on a limb and impersonate a literary critic: perhaps the first part of the novel is a sort of "thought experiment"? What if people were devoid of basic human passions such as envy and greed? What would life be in such an environment? Can we imagine how life would look if people never wanted more than they have? (By the way, is there a more un-American concept than eliminating greed?) How would life look like if everybody felt "goodwill, much goodwill", the all-encompassing "warmth and goodwill", but no strong emotions towards everybody else? Mr. Coetzee answers: everything, even warmth, would then be lukewarm. Things would not have "their due weight," for instance, music - in its "unremitting, even-tempered melodiousness" - would "lack weight," and so would lovemaking. The author contrasts the new, placid humans with the old ones: "In the old way of thinking, no matter how much you may have, there is always something missing. The name you choose to give this something-more that is missing is passion."
The second half of the novel focuses on the boy: his brilliant intellect allows him at the age of six to learn - on his own - how to read and write yet he is completely unable and unwilling to follow the directions set out for him by other people, particularly by his inept teacher at school. This part of the novel is much more realistic and, based on my limited experience with children, the psychological portrait of David is totally convincing and plausible; David is one of the more memorable young child characters I have ever met on pages of a book.
I am too obtuse to understand the novel and I do not want to read "professional" reviews - before I write my own - to learn what the critics "get" from the novel. My perception is of a major disconnect between the two parts of the book: the "thought experiment" of the first half is fascinating as an idea but failing as fiction. While the second part is very readable, what is the deeper meaning in this realistic portrait of a brilliant yet indirectable child? Or maybe there is not supposed to be any? But then what does the portrait of David have in common with the apparent main theme of the first part - lack of human passion?
Several passages in the book are - to put it mildly - unusual. The toilet in Inés's apartment overflows and Simon has to clean the mess:
Who would have thought, at the moment when he first beheld this young woman on the tennis court, so cool, so serene, that a day would come when he would be having to wash her shit off his body!,
The recurring motif about numbers, particularly about the discrete nature of integers, is fascinating and deep (Mr. Coetzee has a degree in mathematics) yet, again, I am missing the connection - likely my fault. I am also curious whether including - on the very same page - references to both the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (the "thing in itself", Ding an sich) and to Heraclitus's well-known saying "you cannot step twice into the same waters" has been done on purpose. Is it how Mr. Coetzee displays his very dry sense of humor?
David Attwell in his book J.M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing (which I review here) writes about Coetzee's struggles with the issues of realism of fiction. Mr. Attwell quotes Coetzee who feels "bound to produce" realism "if the book is to be written", but who also seems to have - with each next novel - less patience to provide sufficient layers of realism to ground his fiction in. The Childhood of Jesus may be a perfect manifestation of the author's impatience.
And finally, there exists an alternative explanation of my not being able to "get" the novel: maybe I am just not smart enough to get it.
Two and a half stars.
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