I don't read J.M. Coetzee for pleasure. To be fair, I'm not sure anyone does. The 2003 Nobel laureate writes from his head more than his heart, framing novels that are philosophical and austere, books that break down the world in highly rational ways. Over the course of his career, he's been compared to Beckett and Kafka, although despite the occasional nod in their direction — the title character of his 1983 novel "The Life and Times of Michael K." functions to some extent as an homage to "The Trial's" Josef K. — he lacks their appreciation of humor, of life as essentially absurd.
"We must cultivate, all of us," Coetzee writes in "Foe" (a 1986 recasting, of sorts, of "Robinson Crusoe"), "a certain ignorance, a certain blindness, or society will not be tolerable." Here we see the fundamental tension of his writing: to make sense of ourselves in a universe where the private and the public narrative often are in conflict, where history betrays us in all sorts of ways.
Coetzee's new novel "The Childhood of Jesus" operates very much out of this territory: an allegory that is oddly concrete. Unfolding largely as a series of extended conversations, it is not, I should also mention, a book about Jesus, although it does revolve around a young child named David who may be "the only one among us with eyes to see."
David is a refugee, newly arrived in an unnamed country and accompanied only by a guardian named Simón, who stepped in to care for him when the boy and his mother were separated at sea. That provides the dramatic momentum of the novel, as the pair go in search of David's missing parent, with little to guide them other than intuition and the desire to be reconciled.
Reconciliation, of course, is a two-way street, spiritual or emotional as well as physical, and it is in exploring this that "The Childhood of Jesus" is at its best. The land to which David and Simón have traveled is a strange one, primitive in its ways — no heavy industry — and yet oddly welcoming at once. They find themselves in a city, Novilla, at a relocation center; later, they are given a small apartment and an allowance for staples such as bread. Simón goes to work as a stevedore, hefting sacks of grain at the docks; David makes friends with a boy named Fidel.
It's a quiet adjustment, peaceful even, and yet it comes with an undertone of something — not quite menace but ennui. The people in this new country, after all, have done away with memory. Even their names (much like David and Simón's) were bestowed upon arrival, leaving them no real connection with the past.
For many characters in the book, this is the point precisely: As Fidel's mother Elena explains, "Forgetting takes time. … Once you have properly forgotten, your sense of insecurity will recede and everything will become much easier."
Simón, though, has no interest in losing track of history. "Please, Elena," he responds, "don't mistake me. I place no value on my memories. I agree with you: they are just a burden. No, it is something else that I am reluctant to yield up: not memories themselves but the feel of residence in a body with a past, a body soaked in its own past."
Simón is referring to his humanity, which is defined, in Coetzee's view, by the small moments that make up a life. Such moments occur in "The Childhood of Jesus," as Simón finds a woman to fill the role of David's mother, and their experiences start to accrue.
At the same time, there's something empty about the city of Novilla, something static, as if it were less a living place than a land of the dead. We are, in a literal way, on the farther shore here, in which the demands of the body (sex, food) are somehow secondary to a kind of stillness, a flatness, a sense that there is not only no past but no future — highlighted by Coetzee's decision to narrate the novel in the present tense. What does it mean, he seems to be asking, to exist without hope and without longing? And what happens in such a landscape when individuals such as Simón and David refuse to go along?
These are interesting questions, important questions, political as well as allegorical. It's no stretch to suggest that Coetzee is reflecting, as he has in "Foe" and other novels, on our tendency to lose sight of the big picture in favor of the narrow focus of our lives.
And yet, for all that "The Childhood of Jesus" is compelling — eerie, tautly written — it ultimately falls prey to the emptiness it describes. Partly, this has to do with its meandering quality; in a land without history, even those who seek not to forget must lose sight of the past. But even more, the issue is the distance in Coetzee's writing, the feeling that his characters are less living flesh-and-blood than signifiers of some idea.
When his novels are working (as in "The Life and Times of Michael K." or the magnificent "Waiting for the Barbarians"), Coetzee's ideas are big enough to seize us, to give us a new set of lenses on the world. With "The Childhood of Jesus," however, the allegory never extends beyond itself, beyond the image of a small group of wanderers, adrift in an uncharted universe, "[l]ooking for somewhere to stay."
The Childhood of Jesus
Viking: 278 pp., $26.95