Platonic Dogs

JM Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus

Harvill Secker, 288pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781846557262

reviewed by Matthew Ingleby

At one point in JM Coetzee’s new novel, the worried Simón finds ‘the boy’ that is and is not his son watching Mickey Mouse on the telly in the apartment of a rival father-figure, the disreputable Daga. The dog in this fictionalised version of the Disney cartoon we know as Pluto is here renamed ‘Plato’, a funny yet disconcerting switch upon which the laconic narrator characteristically neglects to remark. The slight change of the vowel, which effects the replacement of one improbable ‘pet name’ (an ancient god) with another (one of the founders of modern thought), invites us to ponder the peculiarity of names, their arbitrariness, serendipity or mysticism.

Onomastic ponderability is one of the trademarks of Coeztee’s work: think of the imaginative act of estrangement performed by the author’s subtraction of a pseudo-French prefix in Foe (1986); the stubborn silence maintained by the abbreviated single-letter surname in The Life and Times of Michael K (1983); the Wordsworthian weight of ‘Lucy’ in Coeztee’s most famous and (second) Booker prize-winning novel Disgrace (1999). Like the flawed protagonist of that work, the boy at the heart of The Childhood of Jesus is called David, though significantly, this is only the name dished out by nameless authorities, as in Oliver Twist.

David also claims to possess a ‘true name’ he recalls from his past but keeps secret from anyone in the narrative, a name that is withheld also from the reader, who can guess what it is but cannot be confirmed in his or her hypothesis. (Guessing his identity is a game the boy wants his companions to play with him at one point.) In a text that showily (and riskily) foregrounds in its title Christianity’s ‘name above all names’, we might be tempted to imagine we have been privileged with a key denied the characters, a key to unlock cleanly the allegory at work in the plot. The certainty of religion is denied us, however, as is even the safety of identifying this novel with the subgenre of religious fiction, at its most capacious. As Simón puts it to the boy after one of his incessant questions, ‘God is not no one, but he lives too far away for us to converse with him or have dealings with him.’ To fix down the relation of title to the mysterious thing it names requires something like a leap of faith that Coeztee’s text declines to endorse with any degree of lucidity.

The book is itself about such ventures into the dark. It begins in media res, with Simón and David seeking food and shelter, having just arrived by boat in a foreign port, Novilla. Simón also declares himself to be commissioned with the important task of finding something less commonplace, the boy’s mother, whom he has never met. After having secured himself a job hauling grain from the ships, the man goes for a walk with the boy in the hinterland of the town and spots a woman playing tennis in a gated community, a person whom he recognises as the spiritual parent for whom he has been searching. Sacrificially bequeathing this stranger (Inés) both the child and the house he has been living in, Simón consigns himself to a life more or less on the margins of what is treated by all involved as a hugely important project: the management of the childhood of David.

The remainder of the book narrates the emergence of David’s querulous personality, and the development of a constructed non-biological family of ‘elective affinities’ surrounding him, which attempts to nurture and protect. Towards the end, we begin to understand what the boy might need to be protected from, as the totalitarian side of what at first seems a merely boringly utopian society betrays itself: when the time comes for David to be schooled, his resistance to Novilla’s unyielding educational model results in his removal to a special facility that may or may not be surrounded by barbed wire. The boy’s escape from this institution (which is a relative of the regimented nightmare spaces of bureaucratic modernity Coetzee has written of elsewhere) precipitates a breath-taking coda, in which the recently forged family make a bid to vanish beyond the state’s identificatory powers, and the child assumes an authority whose gradual evolution we realise we have been witnessing throughout.

Much of the narrative mimics the conventions of fantasy or dystopian writing, in which the protagonist acts as a proxy for the reader and introduces us to an unknown terrain, the exiled characters displaying fascination with and wariness about the phenomena they encounter there on our behalf. Mild friction, in the form of variably heated discussion between aliens and locals, alerts us to the differences between this idiosyncratically particular though also weirdly abstracted world and theirs, and in so doing, the novel encourages us to think about our own culture’s quirks or blind-spots. As practised readers of Coetzee will note, ethical and philosophical contentions cluster around topics that have cropped up in the author’s fiction and essays for decades, but the novel also enters into debates that are more surprising.

Its discussions of flesh-on-flesh relations - what not to eat and the problem of sexual urges –feel almost like self-quotation, the vegetarians and libidinous men from Coetzee’s earlier fiction rising between these new lines like ghosts. But the substantial treatment of the nature of work appears at once original within his oeuvre and consciously derivative at the same time, carrying troublingly simultaneous resonances of utopian romances (William Morris etc) and menacing fables (Magnus Mills came to mind). When, in his labours at the port, Simón suggests getting hold of a crane to do some of the stevedores’ heavy lifting work for them, the other men are sceptical of the idea and doubt the value of replacing physical endeavour with machine management. After they come round to the proposal to trial one, an accident that suspiciously resembles a very physical rebuttal of his idea results in the crane knocking Simón into the sea, where he is saved from drowning by a colleague. Rejecting the labour-saving technology, the workers return to their previous technologically unmediated ways, hauling heavy sacks of wheat by hand.

At other times, Coetzee makes his characters stumble over almost laughably banal details that encapsulate the fictional world’s difference to our own, details which sit with a delightful though puzzling lack of embarrassment alongside the grander stalwarts of the dystopian form: we discover that bus travel is free and football is liberated from the market economy, but what we are supposed to do with these miniature enlightenments, Dios Sabe. After rehearsing the optimistic Liebnizian motto Voltaire’s Candide so mercilessly and memorably repeats, Simón is met with this reply: ‘This isn’t a possible world…It is the only world.’ Though to us the book at times reads like an over-determined parable, for the characters – Coetzee protests – it simply isn’t. Like some of the author’s other recent fiction, such as Elizabeth Costello (2003) and The Diary of a Bad Year (2007), The Childhood of Jesus is a novel of ideas that nonetheless problematises the feasibility of such a genre, at least as it is conventionally understood.

If Simón’s questions about Novilla allow us to trace the outlines of some insolubly old chestnuts (freedom and community, materiality versus idealism, the meaning of ‘enough’), the boy’s enquiries about life, the universe, and everything, which he insistently and unsettlingly poses throughout the book, perform a related but more complexly layered function. ‘What are my best interests?’ ‘What are we like [if we are not like poo]?’ The boy’s curious expressions of incomprehension, of a want of understanding, remind us that children themselves respond to much we think to be familiar and normal with a visceral sense of its injustice or meaninglessness. As Coetzee’s paralleling of the two questioners, man and boy, suggests, the alien’s friction and reconciliation with an unknown mainland is in some ways analogous to the child’s painful process of accommodation with a world which he does not yet know - and which appears also not to know itself.

The novel is largely about the exceptionalism of childhood; about the way we half encourage children to idealise the world and half chide them for doing so. The contradictions of life are laid bare and articulable to the partially socialised child, contradictions that ideological mystification and psychological repression displace in adulthood. For all this novel’s partial entertainment of the Romantic notion of the child as philosopher, Coetzee again restrains us from making the final leap. David is as much a fantasist and a brat as a prophet: much of the time he seems to be simply confused, not least about the status of fiction, a particularly dangerous error for a fictional character to profess. (Don Quixote plays an important role within the boy’s education, and within the novel’s interrogation of the relationship between idealising and fantasizing. As he does in Foe, Coetzee goes back to clutch at the roots of the Western novel tradition, and encounters there an origin as slippery as the latest incarnations of postmodernity.)

While the boy is foxed by the fictionality of Cervantes, another written text in which he is much invested acts as a kind of figure for the Real. Somewhere on their journey the documents that would have revealed the true identity of the boy have been lost. Throughout The Childhood of Jesus these mislaid papers titillate us with the possibility that they could represent some final clue and usher in the detective at the end of a murder mystery. This, of course, fails to happen. At the novel’s conclusion the family realise that the best way to evade the ‘authorities’ is to present themselves as recent immigrants, blank slates ready and waiting for the inscription of a new name and social identity. Identity itself is revealed as a fiction, and one in which not only the state trades but also its fugitives. Through this move, it retrospectively dawns upon us that the identity of the characters as outsiders might have been feigned from the beginning, undermining the dichotomy of difference and sameness that had seemed to structure the writing as a kind of travel fiction. Rather than the journey from ignorance to knowledge the novel at first resembles, a more tricksy pattern announces itself in its final pages, in which its end is also another beginning.

This is a carefully written and necessarily difficult novel that rewards patient re-reading. It is unlikely to prove as popular as some of Coetzee’s other work, because the intellectual ground it covers is often challenging in a manner that is disarmingly odd. Nonetheless, it deserves to be recognised as an important contribution to literature. Its central matter, which is the issue of reconciling ideas and the ideal with the world as we find it, is crucial and fundamental. In the words of one of the characters, ‘Ideas can become reality’. The Childhood of Jesus presses us to think through how this might be the case.
Matthew Ingleby teaches literature and film at University College London. He has published articles on diverse topics including the role of locality in utopia, building plots, and Victorian Bloomsbury bachelordom, and is co-editor of a forthcoming essay collection entitled GK Chesterton, London and Modernity.