The Saviour Abroad
The Childhood of Jesus
By J M Coetzee (Harvill Secker 277pp £16.99)
When Ernest Renan's Vie de Jésus appeared in 1863, the idea that its subject could be seen simply as a subject - that he could have his life set out on the page like any old Levantine preacher; that the evangelists and the early Christian chroniclers could be parsed for prejudice and castigated for inconsistency as if they were the hack journalists of their day - was regarded as blasphemous in certain quarters. At very least, it was said, some sort of irreparable breach of decorum had taken place. The book was more or less responsible for inaugurating what one might call the Citizen Smith school of Christology: dozens of paintings and, later, books which emphasised the radical scruffiness of the first Christians, deploying a potent mixture of anthropological exactitude and gritty-realist schmaltz to do so.
We could say The Childhood of Jesus is merely the latest instalment in this tradition. But in fact it belongs to a small subset of it: its title creates expectations that its plot and characters wilfully disregard. Despite being set in an unnamed Latin American port city where presumably you can't move for people called Jésus, its protagonists are Simón, a middle-aged man, and David, a boy of five. Arriving by boat as refugees, they are invited to discard, and seem in large measure to forget, all traces of their former lives - their Hispanic names are issued to them by the authorities.
At some point on the crossing, Simón has assumed responsibility for the boy until such time as he can find his 'real' mother (as opposed to his birth mother, who is one of the many things lost or left behind on David's voyage here). The duo stumble on Inés, who is playing tennis with her brothers at a stuffy country club on the outskirts of town, living an unfulfilled, worldly life. She takes a while to get used to her new calling, but is presently installed in Simón's old council flat to take care of David, after a fashion, while Simón continues with his newfound working life as a stevedore. A disagreement with the education authorities and a hurried escape ensue; the book ends with what may or may not be the young master's first disciple climbing aboard their crowded car, bound for a new life elsewhere.
The Childhood of Jesus achieves Coetzee's usual trick of being at once austere and voluptuous, eloquent and inscrutable. It sits in your hand like a meteorite or a shard of obsidian. Its relevance to Jesus seems tangential and inexact (but then Joyce didn't like Ulysses being tethered too tightly to Homer, either). The boy is awkward, passionate, and reluctant to engage with conventions of number and language because he has devised his own ways of thinking. He asks penetrating questions, as children do. He makes up his own version of Don Quixote, like the titular character in Borges's short story 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote' (Menard, incidentally, deplored 'those parasitic books that set Christ on a boulevard'). He blithely allows himself to be the epicentre of a series of seismic upheavals in people's lives, happy in his princely role (as children are). But I don't quite buy him as the Messiah - even if he is, at times, a very naughty boy. In fact the New Testament character I was most often reminded of was Joseph, a clear avatar for Simón (not that there's been a Vie de Josèphe to my knowledge). There is also a sense of trouble over the sea, of a coldly indifferent world beyond a small pool of familial warmth and safety, and a constant readiness to flee that evoke the Flight into Egypt as depicted in another like-titled work, Berlioz's oratorio L'enfance du Christ.
Behind the book hangs, intriguingly, the shadow of Fyodor Dostoevsky, a writer with whom Coetzee engaged more explicitly in The Master of Petersburg, not his best novel but one of his most interesting. Dostoevsky was much troubled by Renan's 'human Jesus', and his later work is more widely concerned with the possibility of faith in a determinist, all-too-human world. In Coetzee's book, religious belief per se is more or less entirely absent, but questions of the how-shall-we-live sort hang over small conversations about parenting, as well as larger ones about whether the stevedores' lives would be improved by the use of a mechanical crane (it isn't). There gradually awakens in Simón a sense of want. Having signed over most of David's day-to-day care to Inés, he finds himself wondering what more he might admit into his life, be it love or learning. But David's needs expand to fill the space - as children's needs do.
One abiding - and abidingly strange - impression left by The Childhood of Jesus is of the anonymous but pressingly real society in which it immerses us: a sort of socialist utopia where the buses are free, where state functionaries allocate housing and workers do life-drawing and philosophy classes, where licensed brothels are available if you can get your head round the paperwork. Needless to say, it has certain labyrinthine or Kafkaesque qualities. But in its treatment of migrants - there is a suggestion that everyone there is a migrant from somewhere, which could be said of a number of Latin American cities, or a number of cities full stop - it is significantly more tender-hearted than any real-world counterpart. It has the flavour of an underworld or afterworld more than of any real or imagined polity: the Kingdom of Heaven as envisaged by a 1970s Northern local authority.
Exclusive from the Literary Review print edition. Subscribe now!
Keith Miller works for the Daily Telegraph. His book on St Peter's is published by Profile.