Review Blog

May 03 2013

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

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Text, 2013. ISBN 9781922079701.
(Age: Senior secondary - adult) Highly recommended. Unlike anything I have ever read, The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee is a surreal alternate-world refugee fable. Simon arrives in a new country from the camp, Belstar (could this name be an amalgam of the notorious concentration camp Belsen and the Star of David?). He has taken responsibility for a young boy who has been re-named David and who has been separated from his mother. People assume that Simon is his grandfather or father and he does take on this role whilst trying to reunite David with his mother. He inexplicably believes that he will know her when he sees her.
In the interim they find modest accommodation and Simon takes on the heavy manual work of a stevedore. His companions are reasonably helpful but not intimate. This is a bland, bloodless country, lacking in irony, news and substance. Coetzee's genius is the construction of a monochromatic, monotonous place which is also interesting and intriguing.
His characters are also astonishing. Simon sees a woman playing tennis in a closed residencia and makes the extraordinary assumption that she is David's mother. He gives the boy to her and builds some foreboding about her treatment of him.
David is a gifted child, winning at chess after only a few games, but he becomes precocious and can't be educated formally. Simon desires that David 'follow in the ways of goodness' but other parallels with Jesus are tenuous, such as mention of being 'the truth', reference to a carpenter and his arrival as a child in an alien place.
Perhaps Coetzee has re-imagined some tangents of a possible life of Jesus as a refugee to offer a vignette or profile of refugees today, who are allowed to enter a new place but welcomed only coolly with mediocre jobs and a hollow benevolence.
The Childhood of Jesus is a provocative, although possibly polarising, study for high level English students or those with an interest in refugees or religion.
Joy Lawn

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