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The Childhood of Jesus

by Daniel Scheffler
Contributor
Tuesday Oct 15, 2013
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The great South African-born Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee has scribed from his new country he calls home, Australia, and yet again the novel "The Childhood of Jesus" feels unique; unique enough that is.

Critiqued for "not giving any pleasure" has been a possible burden for the writer - but a burden we suspect he loves to bear. A boy, David, and a man, Simon, arrive in a place where no one knows them and they know nothing - not how, and not what. Its undertone is that of a beautiful Sci-fi film noir where surely anything is possible. Or perhaps this is actually a story about a socialist world where nothing will ever again be possible.

But the religious note in the title of the book gives away too much, and way too little. Called a "red herring" by the New York Times, the religious aspect of this novel is not explored in any effective ways - could this hunt for the child’s mother be a symbol of looking for religion or even the big G-word?

The entire novel carries that sense - that things are, or were, doomed from the start.

Coetzee, the big prizewinner with also two Booker Prizes under his proverbial belt, has evolved his career with great care, slowly unfolding the new life across continents and, with that, a new take-away from South Africa’s Apartheid literature. But where he hasn’t managed to cultivate any prowess yet is in the actual story - the veins that bubble and flow.

The story runs ahead, and naturally the boy’s mother figure does appear. The three of them, unarmed and human, run off like some Orwell inspired vigilantes to save their little family. But it feels futile. The entire novel carries that sense - that things are, or were, doomed from the start. The whole will never belong to them - no amount of Jesus, or Spanish, or sexual excavations will bring them any answers.

Coetzee has the ability to write some of this century’s, and certain last century’s, greatest prose. He does so continually. And will probably spend the rest of career doing that. Now we just need a novel that feels either less real or more realistic. The sheer wonder of either extreme of a fine balance of both is where the author will capture me again.

"The Childhood of Jesus"
J.M. Coetzee
Viking
$26.95

by J.M. Coetzee

Based between New York and Cape Town, Daniel Scheffler writes about socio political and travel matters and is working on a memoir. Follow him on Twitter @danielscheffler.

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