The naked emperor…
After fleeing from Novilla at the end of the last book, Simón, Davíd and Inés arrive in Estrella. While there, Simón will agonise endlessly over how to get a decent education for Davíd, Inés will get a job in a dress shop, and Davíd will become even more obnoxious than he was in The Childhood of Jesus. The pseudo-religious symbolism will be replaced by a load of pseudo-mumbo-jumbo about numbers. And the hollowness of book 1 will turn into a vacuous vacuum in this one.
When I slated The Childhood of Jesus for being essentially empty of all meaning, many Coetzee fans told me not to give up on him – they assured me that really he was a wonderful, intelligent writer with plenty to say. So I gave him a second chance. I find it hard to believe, but this book is actually even more meaningless and shallow than the previous one. If ever there were a case of the emperor’s new clothes, this is it – Mr Coetzee is running naked through the streets, hoping people will still think he’s dressed in robes of gold and purple. Ironic really, since if this book does have a point, it is that the people of this strange country in which our tedious trio have washed up seem willing to worship Davíd despite him being an obnoxious and rather unintelligent spoiled little brat, who frankly should have been sent to bed with no supper at the end of chapter 1, book 1, and not allowed out till he apologised for existing.
Since this is a sequel, the following paragraphs will contain some spoilers for the first book.
At the end of The Childhood, it was left with Davíd and his surrogate parents fleeing Novilla because the authorities there wanted to put Davíd in some kind of institution, considering his behaviour disruptive. The suggestion, subtly given in the title, was that Davíd was some kind of Messiah, perhaps even actually Jesus, and as he fled he began to pick up followers who recognised his frequently touted but never shown exceptionality. This second book promptly drops all that, and drops other “important” symbolism from book 1 too, such as Inés, the virgin mother in The Childhood, now apparently being a sexually experienced woman (without having had sex in the interim I might add – miraculous!).
Simón, devoted to Davíd and convinced of his exceptionalism in book 1, is now finding that the child is simply difficult – something I feel the rest of us had worked out long before. Davíd shows no affection for these adults who have cared for him and promptly demands to become a boarder at his new school, where they are teaching the children how to call down numbers from the stars via dance. (That sentence alone should surely be enough of a warning to avoid the book at all costs.) Davíd instead gives his love to a weird caretaker, whose main attraction seems to be that he shows the schoolboys lewd pictures of women. But things all go horribly wrong and we have some jejune philosophising on justice and rehabilitation. After avoiding the overt but silly religious symbolism of the first book throughout nearly all of this one, Coetzee then reverts to what must surely be mockery by having Davíd offering redemption if only people would believe in him.
It is readable because Coetzee is a good storyteller. He manages to create a constant impression that he’s just about to say something meaningful, which keeps the reader turning the pages in hope. But sadly he has nothing meaningful to say, so he fills the space with a lot of pseudo-philosophical absurdity, occasionally humorous but always with a kind of supercilious sneer hidden not very thoroughly between the lines. When discussing book 1 with a fellow reviewer, I joked that Coetzee was probably having a good laugh at all the thousands of people vainly trying to find a coherent meaning in the novel – the joke’s on me for being daft enough to read book 2! Ugh! Needless to say, it was longlisted for the 2016 Booker… an institution always willing to see gorgeous robes where none exist, so long as the emperor has a well-known name.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.