Coetzee explores visions of a Buddhist utopia and a Kafkaesque retelling of the nativity story with compelling and puzzling results
Since Coetzee won the Nobel prize in 2003, his books have mostly taken the form of sly semi-autobiographical fragments. His last novel, Summertime (2009), was a series of self-lacerating biographical sketches concerning the South African novelist John Coetzee, "a little man, an unimportant little man", who closely resembles the author in some respects but not others (being dead, for example, unlike his real-life namesake). By contrast, The Childhood of Jesus represents a return to the allegorical mode that made him famous. The opening chapters bring to mind the internment camps and sinister bureaucracies of his first Booker winner, Life & Times of Michael K (1983), the story of a gardener in a counterfactual, civil war‑torn South Africa. The invented, indeterminate location of the new novel also recalls Coetzee's first international success, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), which was set on the edge of an imaginary empire, part British-controlled Africa and part ancient Rome. But whereas both of those novels clearly – if not straightforwardly – allegorised apartheid South Africa, The Childhood of Jesus is much harder to decode.
Initially, we seem to be reading a Kafkaesque version of the nativity story, with refugees playing the holy family in an uncaring host country. But it soon becomes clear that the city they have arrived in, Novilla, is far from uncaring. It is, in fact, a kind of utopia – a specifically Coetzeean version of utopia. (Asked about John Coetzee's political ideals, a character in Summertime suggests, only half-jokingly: "The closing down of the mines. The ploughing under of the vineyards. The disbanding of the armed forces. The abolition of the automobile. Universal vegetarianism. Poetry in the streets. That sort of thing.") The old man, now known as Simón, is quickly given a job at the docks, where "all his fellow stevedores strike him as good men: hard-working, friendly, helpful". They are kind to the boy, now named David. The city's workers attend philosophy classes every night; vegetarianism is mandatory (the alternative is eating rats); the horse and cart is still in action; and football matches, like music lessons, are free ("It's football," says a colleague when Simón tries to pay. "It's a game. You don't need to pay to watch a game.") When Simón points out that the sacks of grain they carry off the ships by hand could be unloaded by a crane in a tenth of the time, the foreman agrees. "But what would be the point?" he asks. "It is not as if there is an emergency, a food shortage for example."
Published by Text Publishing in ANZ - Hardback - 7 March - NZ$45 A$35.00