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Coetzee's novels about Jesus

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 1 December 2016


Being a Nobel Prize winner for literature gives the sort of credibility that stills the doubts of publishers and moderates reviews. Coetzee published The Childhood of Jesus in 2013. It was received with puzzlement by reviewers and produced much debate about what it was about. Very briefly, the central characters are David (Jesus) and Simón who arrive as refugees in a Spanish speaking, bland and bureaucratic land. Imagine an empty dystopia.

David is separated from his mother and Simón takes him under his care and attempts to find her. Like everyone in this place, they are washed clean of their memories of their past lives. Hence David does not remember his mother. Finding no trace of her, Simón chooses a woman (Inés), seemingly at random, to be his "true" mother. This is the first rupture we find between fact and metaphor. Thus there is no obvious Jesus and Mary here but rather a "true" mother (who wears Marian blue) who is not his biological mother and not a very good mother at that.

Childhood is not a straight analogy between an historical Jesus and a present day David that includes corresponding events. Rather, David is confronted by a world that lacks the juice of human living. Sexual passion does not exist, the diet is bread and only bread, the government is helpful but also hopelessly inefficient and people are animated by goodwill, which sometimes lapses in strange ways. For example, when the housing official invites Simón and David to her house when she could not find them shelter, she does not invite them into her home but leaves them to sleep on the ground under a makeshift shelter in her yard. When Simón, stiff with cold, knocks on her door in the early morning she drops a blanket out of the window. This clear abrogation of hospitality shows that "goodwill" is a sham.

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The workers attend the Institute in which they can do courses in Spanish but also in philosophy of a pointless Platonic kind. All of the people are immigrants and they have no memory. They have no history and history does not happen in their world. There are no news broadcasts because it is supposed that nothing happens. This is a world locked in a pointless present.

In the midst of this strangeness David is a precocious and head strong child who insists on teaching himself to read and refusing the basic theory of numbers. Indeed, he fears that there are gaps in the numbers through which one might fall. There are numerous observations the he is "imaginative". Thus he stands out in a world in which imagination is scarce or absent.

It is as though the world thus described is the world into which Jesus comes and which "receives him not". It is a dull and passionless world that lacks any past or future but simply the day-to-day repetition of labour. Labour is celebrated for its own sake and it does not matter to the labourers that rats in the warehouse eat the wheat they unload from the ships.

Thus the Childhood of Jesus is not an analogy of the life of Jesus but an analogy of his experience of the spiritually dead world into which he is born. For him facts do not have priority over meaning. When David escapes from the state run school for difficult children he says that he walked through the barbed wire leaving his clothes behind. When the authorities assure Simón that there is no barbed wire and students can come and go as they want, David insists on its existence and his Simón and Inés choose to believe him. The barbed wire is barbed wire of the mind.

This gives us a window into how biblical literature works. For example it is not necessarily a fact that Jesus was the result of a virgin birth. However, the tale of the virgin birth indicates that Jesus has no earthly father; God is his father. Similarly, it may not be a fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, but the resurrection speaks of the continuing presence of Christ in his Church and in the Eucharistic meal. Meaning trumps fact. We see truth through imagination. To insist that only facts are "true" leaves one in a reduced, flat world in which bureaucracy only sees rules and processes. Sound familiar?

The Childhood of Jesus disappointed many readers, it seems to go nowhere, it has no interesting ending and seems to lack any point. However, in 2016 Coetzee published a sequel called The Schooldays of Jesus that picks up where the first novel leaves off.

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David is in flight from the state school system because of his difficulties with mathematics and is sent to the Academy of Dance run by a husband and wife (Ana Magdalena) with peculiar metaphysical ideas about numbers and dance and the stars. Ana, who is walking grace itself and loved by all, is apparently raped and murdered by Dmitri a museum attendant who is hopelessly in love with her. David discovers the body and is traumatised.

The true identity of David is revealed in how he perceives Dmitri's awful crime. Dmitri confesses to the murder and insists that he should work in the salt mines until he makes reparation. The state has other ideas. The judges cannot imagine such a deed being performed by a sane person and hence makes the judgment that Dmitri was out of his mind when he committed the murder and sends him to an asylum for treatment.

This is a world that is unfamiliar with human evil. It cannot conceive that love and hate often dwell together in the same heart. It can only imagine that all people are animated by good will. A hopeful humanism masks the truth about the human condition.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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