Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Gospel According To John Coetzee

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

In the beginning was the title and it was The Childhood of Jesus, and those who looked upon it saw that it was a light that illuminates the new novel by J.M. Coetzee.

And though many of Coetzee’s earlier titles are terse (Boyhood, Youth, Disgrace), some are resonant (Waiting for the Barbarians) and some ironically apt (Foe). But the name of his new work is both simple and skilful.

For once again Coetzee puts aside autobiography and anti-fiction and returns to allegory, using a simple style that reaches the realm of parable. All of which is entirely fitting, given his subject. And in the novel, the characters of the middle-aged Simón and his five-year-old ward David arrive in the township of Novilla in an unnamed country in a quest for David’s missing mother. 

And Simon discovers that Novilla is governed by rules different from those he’s known before. Daily allowances and accommodation are freely available and residents are driven by kinship, not competition. As he’s told: “People here have washed themselves clean of old ties. You should be doing the same: letting go of old attachments, not pursuing them”.

And the spirit of Kafka moves upon the early part of the book as man and boy try to make sense of the egalitarian yet bureaucratic nature of their new world. Given that the citizens speak Spanish, it could well be that Cuba was what Coetzee had in mind.

It comes to pass that Simón finds work as a stevedore, then meets a strange woman named Inés, whom he instinctively feels will make a good mother to David. And Inés takes over maternal duties towards the boy who is described as magical on more than one occasion, and both decide to nurture his other-worldly qualities.

And Coetzee gives names to his characters that are as significant as his title. Simon is also the first name of the Apostle Peter, the so-called rock upon which Jesus built his church; Inés comes from the Greek for “holy”, and she is described as “the virginal type”; and David is mentioned in the gospels as an ancestor of Jesus.

Now, while the writing style is simple, what it contains can be subversive. A neighbour’s son is called Fidel and a faithful dog answers to Bolivar. For the Latin American Liberator’s first name was Simón, too. And David is inspired by reading Don Quixote – written by a “man named Benengeli” -- especially the knight-errant’s habit of mistaking the objects of his imagination for reality.

And to further drive home the point, there are loaves, fishes and a sinister Senor Daga who tries to lead David into temptation. Though there is also much that seems inspired by Buddhism. The benevolent residents of Novilla philosophise freely, and have the habit of uttering statements such as: “This endless dissatisfaction, this yearning for the something-more that is missing, is a way of thinking we are well rid of.”

But there are also moments of great peculiarity, such as a discussion with David on the one-ness of human excreta: “Once it gets into the sewer pipes it is no one’s poo…it joins all the other people’s poo and becomes general poo”.  Later on, there’s an invisibility cloak, which strikes an incongruous, Potter-ish note in a novel such as this.

And having finished the book, one recalls the first chapter of Elizabeth Costello in which Coetzee writes that novels of realism aren’t the best way to put forward ideas, because such ideas have to be embodied in characters.Which could explain the writer’s attraction to the allegory, a form that yokes together idea and character.

Verily, with The Childhood of Jesus, Coetzee offers an ingenious reassembly of the roots of one of the world’s dominant religions. The new Pope ought to read it.

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