J.M. Coetzee earned the Nobel Prize for literature because of novels such as "Life & Times of Michael K" and "Disgrace." His latest novel, "The Childhood of Jesus," however, reads like an inside joke.
Mr. Coetzee "gets it" for sure, but for most readers the laugh's on them unless they fancy a slog through an absurdist landscape where Sartre's "No Exit" is re-imagined by Ionesco.
"THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS"
By J.M. Coetzee
Naturally, Jesus references galore appear to justify the book's title, but don't expect to read about the childhood of that familiar guy from the Gospels. This novel takes place in someplace like Limbo, or maybe even Hell, and the boy who might be Jesus is one weird kid. So, for that matter, is his guardian Simon.
Simon and David (names they were given at a refugee camp) have landed in a country where all communication is in travelers' Spanish (no one seems to be a native speaker), and everyone eats their daily bread (there's little else), and works at a low-level job.
David asks his guardian, "Why are we here?" Simon assumes the boy means the shabby lodging at the relocation center and tells him it's only for a night or two. "No, I mean why are we here?" It's the existential question every religion exists to answer, and this novel rehearses a variety of beliefs.
I noted riffs on the Bible, Plato's "Republic" and the Tao te Ching. Other readers will surely uncover the Vedic Scriptures and Buddha's mantras.
My favorite section of the novel is the one I call "the Tao of Poo." Simon has been summoned by Ines, the woman he's anointed the mother of David, to unclog their toilet. Realizing the dirty work ahead of him, Sim n tells David to go for a walk, but the boy insists he wants to stay, help, and give "ideas."
" '... Alas, toilets are not receptive to ideas. Toilets are not part of the realm of ideas, they are just brute things, and working with them is nothing but brute work. So go for a walk with your mother while I get on with the job."
"Why can't I stay?" says the boy. "It's just poo."
There is a new note in the boy's voice, a note of challenge that he does not like. ...
"Toilets are just toilets, but poo is not just poo," he says. "There are certain things that are not just themselves, not all the time. Poo is one of them." ...
"It's my poo," he says. "I want to stay!"
"It was your poo. But you evacuated it. You got rid of it. It's not yours any more. You no longer have a right to it. ... Once it gets into the sewer pipes it is no one's poo," he goes on. "In the sewers it joins all other people's poo and becomes general poo. ... We are not like poo, that has to stay behind and be mixed again with the earth."
"What are we like?"
"'What are we like if we are not like poo? We are like ideas. Ideas never die. You will learn that at school."
"But we make poo."
"That is true. We partake of the ideal but we also make poo. That is because we have a double nature."
Simon later reflects on the fact that he's had to clean the toilet of a beautiful woman he imagined as the mother of his ward the first time he saw her. The novel is premised on his belief that he will know David's mother when he sees her, hence his picking a narcissistic virgin with a name identical to that of a main character of Sartre's vision of hell, "No Exit," and insisting she parent his ward.
Amazingly, she agrees. Post-toilet repair, Simon's shirt is covered with Ines' excrement. He imagines how the local philosophy professor, a serious older woman he met at the university, would respond: "Would the lady with the iron-grey hair have a word for it: the pooness of poo?"
Simon is the main consciousness of this novel, hence a perfect 'Simon Says' for Mr. Coetzee. David represents a young Jesus with Asperger's -- brilliant but intractable and socially maladapted (the administration wants to send him to a "special school" after he proves too much for his teacher).
Any given passage of this novel is diverting, but in the end I agree with Simon: "Something is missing." He says, "I wish someone, some savior, would descend from the skies and wave a magic wand and say, Behold, read this book and all your questions will be answered." This book isn't that book, but fans of Beckett, Ionesco and Kafka (when he's being funny ha-ha) might well love its absurdity.
Susan Balee lives and writes in the East End. Recent work can be found in The Hudson Review and The Wild River Review.