JM Coetzee could so easily be talked about within the confines of that awfully-named category, The Writers’ Writer. For an artist so laden with awards (as well as the Nobel Prize for Literature he has twice won the Booker Prize) his only real public persona is created almost entirely from the absence of his own celebrity. He rarely makes public appearances, (it is even more rare for him to give interviews), and when he does he has been known to simply take to the stage, read aloud from his work for twenty-five minutes, and then alight, without intro nor outro. His autobiographical works, most notably Summertime (2010), as so artfully crafted that it is difficult to spend much time discussing them within the normal parameters of memoir or even of roman a clef: who is who, where is where, what is the significance of this to the reality of the man; in as far as it allows us into the minds of the great and the interesting, Coetzee’s work is notable for its reticence. Intrigue was an afterthought in these works – they were as subtle and as bold as his ‘pure’ fiction. Or perhaps his novels are as subtle and bold as his autobiographies. It is difficult to tell; he is, after all, a writers’ writer.
He has moved away from any notion of prying, or laying bare, in his latest novel, The Childhood of Jesus, and returned to the land of almost-fable, where he started out with works such as The Life and Times of Michael K (1983) and Foe (1986). If Coetzee does pry, it is into the stuff beneath all our skin, and he does it laying question upon question. What is humankind’s true relationship to the parameters it establishes for itself by the erection of civilisation? It’s quite a question, one that is first prodded at in Don Quixote, the book that runs throughout this one, and is physically carried around by the central child character, without ever being read. Coetzee, in many ways, is all about the silences, the spaces between his words, between his ideas, and those spaces have never been more powerfully constructed than in this new book, which strikes angrily and coarsely, and must be the favourite to bring the author an unprecedented third Man Booker Prize.
Two characters, a man past middle age, who is given the name Simon, and a boy, not yet five it is thought, who is given the name David. They arrive at the docklands of a fictional Hispanic city, a new beginning from a past that they cannot truly recall, if there was any past at all. Coetzee’s vagueness is delivered with surety, and it is their vagueness, their vaporous regard for their origins and motives which provides the author with a magnificent structure for pointing the reader toward things, for shadowing us from others, and for creating a solid, fully realised world out of smoke and mirrors.
The quest, simply put, is for Simon to find David’s mother, although, like everything else in the book, this changes slowly and without notice, morphing and billowing – he needs to find a mother soon after, and then when eventually he finds the peculiarly asexual Ines playing tennis at the slightly sinister La Residencia complex, it seems that anybody will do. The book is bound up in its symbolism, but is never anything less than a compelling story. Like John Bunyan, Coetzee is playing with us whilst being playful himself. (The dialogue between Simon and David over the subject of poo, is perhaps the funniest and warmest scene I have read in a long time, but it is also integral to an understanding of the Kantian questions in the book). David suspects that Ines, to whom he has made mother to the child David, is a virgin; the character of Daga is a delightfully ambivalent devil, and is tied tightly to the notions of temptation; there is a teacher with one glass eye, both a cyclops and a character meant to spark a thought to Michael K’s hair lip. The story is littered with decent folk who work in menial but proud jobs, and who can absorb and offer workers’ wisdom. The book is attached tightly to the coast, to the fisherman and dock workers in a veritable Sea of Galilee of symbolic layers.
But inside all of this, buzzing like a gathering plague of locusts, is a discomforting sinister quilt to the book. As the story draws closer and closer into the face of the child David, the experience of reading the book becomes darker, and an ominous feeling grows. The Childhood of Jesus is a remarkable lesson in tone and atmosphere. Coetzee moves his sentences like a camera with an orchestra attached.
One of the reasons for this is the world of the book. Coetzee has started us out walking through mists, feeling our way, inch by inch, through clogged, discombobulating fug. We are never entirely sure where we are – an afterlife, an alternative dimension, a dream, a fabled land? But the characters are never sure, either, and the significance is that although they are unsure, they are unconcerned. The ideas of rebirth are threaded throughout, and Coetzee has never been more beautifully subtle than in his deployment of the progression of David and Simon’s alien Spanish as it becomes a cute symbol for their assimilation into the dream world. They simply know that the past must be forgotten, and as the reader is forced to make up his or her own mind about the nature of this realm in which the action takes place, a remarkable thing happens: it matters less to us also.
It is a mark of Coetzee’s genius that he is not just telling a story, but is forcing us to be a part of it, for the throbbing skeleton of the book to come up from the text and grab you by the wrist. But more than this, we are comfortable in the swaying completeness of this world we cannot see, cannot understand or touch. It is absolutely the connection of dream to paper.
The Childhood of Jesus is an old school book of ideas. In one sense it is openly an essay on Voltaire’s response to Leibniz’s assertion that this cruel fallible world is the best of all ones possible. Voltaire’s response was his masterpiece, Candide (1759), and although Coetzee is happy to indulge his skill in panglossian moments of comfort, his clipped direct prose and modernist tendencies perhaps make this novel even greater than that. At the very least The Childhood of Jesus should be a novel regarded in the same breath as Candide, and perhaps to Cervantes’ work also (although there is a reason why David will not read Don Quixote, but carries it with him – that reason may be different for every reader). The Childhood of Jesus will quickly become known as the masterpiece of one of modern literature’s great practitioners, but it will not be long before it is seriously considered also amongst the classics that it plays with so forcefully within its pages.