The Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee

A hollow egg…

😦 😦

Childhood of JesusWhen I was young, Easter eggs were a double treat. There was milk chocolate on the outside and then, when the egg was opened, there was an extra something inside, a small packet of Maltesers, Chocolate Buttons or, for the really lucky, Smarties. (Of course, note well that the Easter egg was also an allusion to the story of Christ.) What Coetzee has given us here is a hollow egg – and one that is, like this introduction, candy-coated with a thick layer of contrived and unsubtle symbolism and allusion.

The book is set in an unnamed society, where immigrants arrive with all memory of their past wiped clean and with new names given to them by the authorities. So we start with the arrival of Simon and the child of an unknown father, David (yes, David. Jesus only puts in an appearance through our friend Allusion). The society is a simple one where money is plentiful but food is in short supply. In fact, for the first couple of weeks, Simon and David are forced to live by bread alone – a thing Simon really feels man cannot do. However, the people of this new society are full of goodwill towards each other and happy with their lot – along with the cricket-bat-over-the-head Christian symbolism, Coetzee’s society seems to draw heavily from Huxley’s Brave New World, with Simon playing a very civilised and philosophical John the Savage.

Simon has taken responsibility for finding David’s mother in this new world – a task that seems impossible since not only do they not know her name or what she looks like, they also don’t know David’s real name (symbolic, eh?). Nothing daunted, Simon decides that a woman he has just met is David’s real mother and persuades her to accept him as her son. She is, of course, a virgin. David, we are told repeatedly, is an exceptional child though in what way is unclear – those who love him accept his exceptionalism without question, one might say on faith, while the authorities soon come to believe he is disruptive and must be contained.

JM Coetzee(courtesy of en-wikipedia.org
JM Coetzee
(courtesy of en-wikipedia.org)

The real problem with the book is that the symbolism is crashingly unsubtle, crammed into every nook and cranny, and yet ultimately signifies nothing. By half way through I was actually beginning to count the references – bread, tick; fishes, tick; wine, tick; virgin mother, tick; raising from the dead, tick; resurrection after 3 days, tick. At one point, as David watches Mickey Mouse on TV, Mickey’s dog is referred to as Plato. By that stage, I no longer knew whether this was typo, error or mysterious allusion, but sadly I suspect the latter. There is also a real feeling of misogyny throughout the book, with the women being treated as not much more than walking wombs or repositories for Simon’s (largely unfulfilled) sexual urges; though since I haven’t read anything else by Coetzee, I couldn’t decide if this reflected the author’s own outlook, or whether it was again symbolic, perhaps of the male domination of the early Christian story.

Despite all of the above, Coetzee’s sparse writing style and use of language make the book a strangely compelling read and Simon in particular is an interesting character, if a little too caricatured as The Thinker. The possibility exists throughout that the book might turn into something wonderful, that the author might pull the mass of symbolism into something profound and meaningful in the end. But once the smooth and velvety chocolate of the prose has been savoured, there’s nothing inside and the hollowness of the egg left this reader feeling unsatisfied and somewhat cheated.

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