Writing some years ago about the philosophical basis for Jorge Luis Borge’s “Pierre Menard”, J.M. Coetzee wrote of Hume’s conception of the past that, “the past, including the age of Cervantes, has no existence except as a succession of present mental states.”
Published in October of 1998, Coetzee’s New York Review of Books piece on the work of Borges set the thematic scene for The Childhood of Jesus, the latest novel from the Nobel laureate, and a pure homage to the late Argentinian writer and his philosophical forebears.
Later in the same piece, he quotes a 1960′s interview with Borges in which he discussed the narrator in his short story “Tlön”, saying he “feels that his everyday world…, his past…[and] the past of his forefathers…[are] slipping away from him.”
Enter our protagonist, Simon, who, along with a young boy named David, has just arrived in a new land, a sort of socialist bland-topia where refugees (we assume they are refugees anyway, though no explicit mentions of war or famine occur) are encouraged to forget their past lives (Simon and David are not their real names, though neither seems to be able to remember his birth name), learn the language, and just be.
Simon has become David’s caretaker at some point during their journey by ship to Novilla, the port-town setting of the book, taking charge of the boy after an incident in which David lost a note that Simon believes contained the names of his parents, and making it his raison d’etre to reunite the boy with his biological mother, whom he believes he will recognize by intuition.
Their unidentified asylum is a dreamlike country, more of an in-a-land-far-away setting than a concrete locale. Aside from noting the native language as Spanish, we are given no clues as to their new home’s geographic location (other than its having access to river ports), topography, or culture. There are automobiles, but no phones to speak of, and a stark lack of industrialization.
It is also a decidedly socialist province, but not in a way that makes it seem like a political commentary. The locals’ attitude of forgetting one’s past and subsisting in content moderation echoes Epicurus and Voltaire rather than Trotsky or Guevara.
In fact, evoking Voltaire, Simon at one point exclaims, “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”
Simon takes a job as a dock worker, where he struggles to pull his weight among the younger stevedores, but nonetheless finds acceptance, in spite of his penchant for goading his fellow workers into philosophical discussions on existence and higher purpose.
Later in his tenure, Simon is surprised to learn that many of his comrades attend a sort of free university in the evenings where they formally study philosophy, although a different sort altogether. He audits not even an entire class, growing bored at a spirited discussions on chairs and tables, and their respective chairness and tableness, a scene that quietly reveals the underlying philosophical dichotomy that separates our protagonist from his new countrymen, metaphysics versus meaning.
Critics and readers alike have compared The Childhood of Jesus to Coetzee’s 1980 novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, for its prosaic style and parable-like quality. What the two books do have in common, is that they were both inspired by poems. Waiting for the Barbarians took its title from the poem of the same name by Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy. In The Childhood of Jesus, a major clue to the book’s thematic roots appears in the form of song, when David returns from a music lesson and sings:
Wer reitet so spät durch Dampf und Wind?
Er ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er halt den Knaben in dem Arm,
Er füttert ihn Zucker, er küsst ihm warm.
A quick search will reveal this to be a passage from Goethe’s poem “Erlkönig”, which was composed in the late 18th century as part of a musical drama. The poem, inspired by Danish folk tales, features a sick, young child who is being taken to a hospital by his father. The boy, likely delusional from fever, sees and hears things his father does not, believing that he is being attacked by the King of the Elves. (While not particularly necessary, you would do well to track down “Erlkönig” and read it as a companion piece. The beauty of writers like Coetzee and David Markson is that every allusion doesn’t have to be recognized or understood to enjoy their work, while at the same time every extra bit of context only adds to the richness of the reader’s experience.
In The Childhood of Jesus, we have a rather exceptional young boy, David, who may very well be considered “sick” by some, at the very least the school psychologist (and in fact today, David would likely be whisked away to a special course for the learning disabled) He speaks and writes in his own language, sees vast space between disparate numbers, and believes in real magic.
Where the father in the story doesn’t heed his son’s visions because he believes him to simply be feverish and hallucinating, Simon, at first, believes David to be playing childish games.
“You can look at the page and move your lips and make up stories in your head, but that is not reading,” he tells him. “For real reading you have to submit to what is written on the page. You have to give up your own fantasies. You have to stop being silly. You have to stop being a baby.”
(There’s likely a good case to be made for the novel as metaphor for how standardization in schools and globalization everywhere else has led to the systematic snuffing out of those individual characteristics that make others uncomfortable, but have so often served as the roots of artistic genius. But to impose any particular theory on the book is to do it a disservice, so I’ll stop there.)
As a book, The Childhood of Jesus is immensely readable, the kind of text you read in an afternoon but remains buzzing in your head for far longer. It is a likeable book, but just why you like it and what it means are other matters entirely. It is an earworm of a book — a brainworm, more accurately — that offers the space for deep reading, all the while remaining aloofly content to, as our characters are instructed to, just be.
An understated aspect of the book, especially given its title, is its religious themes, although the only religion discussed is of a vague and impersonal nature, borrowing again from Borges, whose gnosticism, Coetzee once wrote, contains a “sense that the ultimate God is beyond good and evil, and infinitely remote from creation.”
That might be yet another lens to view The Childhood of Jesus through, in that its world is one in which its author is more removed than we’re used to from Coetzee. His politics pulse through the world he’s created, but only barely audibly, and he is content to let his agenda remain a secret while we pleasantly grasp as straws.