There is nothing more irritating to a proficient reader and writer, or nothing more despairing to a scribe seeking accomplishment and fulfilment in a trying environment than the following scenario.
An established and popular news agent has, through ignorance and, more than likely, incompetence, filed J M Coetzee’s last novel, The Childhood of Jesus, incorrectly on their bookshelves. It is filed amongst Christian self-help books, inspirational encounters and affairs, best-selling sermons and other money-making rackets of this lucrative genre. You are forgiven for mistaking me as an agnostic Christian, Jew, or Muslim, or worse still, an atheist or anti-Christ.
Do not fear. My spiritual and religious status, however, is not the subject of this note. But the irritation at this profitable purveyor of stationery, children’s puzzles and expensive toys, magazines and books, gift cards, pens, pencils, crayons and paints and the papers on which to write, draw and paint, prevails.It was very clear to me that no-one in this popular store, located in a grey-looking shopping centre near my humble home, had read the book.
Owing to the fact that J M Coetzee is a previous winner of the Man Booker Prize (twice), his The Childhood of Jesus was automatically entered to the list of candidates for that year’s Prize.
The narrative as well as the novel’s title has confused and intrigued many readers and critics of J M Coetzee’s latest novel published by Vintage in 2013. It takes an experienced reader of Coetzee’s works to expect the unexpected and to my mind Coetzee has produced a masterly text which ruffles the readers’ horizons of expectations.
Yes, The Childhood of Jesus does allude to the little-known life of Christ as a young boy. But it is the story’s ambiguous setting that is both intriguing and effective. On our first reading, we are led to believe that the mysterious child and his guardian, a middle-aged man, are new refugees on the European continent where Spanish is the dominant language.
The story not only alludes to the “life and times” of our Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, as a young boy. There are a number of allegorical layers which Coetzee has playfully included in the narrative. On this first reading, one is immediately drawn to imaginings of the past, particularly the swarming of displaced persons into and around Europe in the aftermath of the second World War. It also reminds one of the present in which thousands of refugees today seek a better life in what they perceive to be greener pastures in Europe, particularly on the Iberian peninsula.
A short note, such as this one, does not do justice to my impressions of yet another masterful work by J M Coetzee. Some may argue that it is far from his best work. The Childhood of Jesus does deserve another close (and intense) reading. I do look forward to doing so in the future, and will in all probability share my feelings and critical views of this story with you.