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book review

South African novelist J.M CoetzeeStringer/Reuters

In a recent reading given by J. M. Coetzee at the University of Cape Town South Africa from his new novel, the Nobel laureate said: "I had hoped that the book would appear with a blank cover and blank title page, so that only after the last page had been read would the reader meet the title: namely, The Childhood of Jesus. But, in the publishing industry as it is at present, that is not allowed."

The novel is not literally concerned with the mysterious years between the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and his baptism in the River Jordan, but it is nevertheless the story of an exceptional young boy and his caregivers. The primary cast is elemental: namely, the boy, Davíd; a woman, Ynes, the boy's mother figure; a man, Simón, the boy's father figure; and a dog, Bolívar, an Alsatian. (The reference to the nineteenth century Venezuelan military and political leader, Simón Bolívar, cannot be accidental, of course, in a novel abounding with allusions, especially to messianic figures.)

The title is suggestive metaphorically but its literal referent is not made obvious. The text plays with some of the historical characters and events from the canonical Gospels but it presents an oblique history.

When the novel opens, Davíd and Simón are strangers in a strange land, speaking a new and strange language, bearing new and strange names. At a camp called Belstar, they have been assigned their new names and ages (Davíd is five and Simón is 45) and take six weeks worth of Spanish classes so they can communicate in this Spanish-speaking country; "all human relations," the reader is told, "have to be conducted in beginner's Spanish." Davíd and Simón have travelled on a boat to this new land but their memories have been "washed clean"; Simón, however, still experiences what he calls "the memory of having memory," even though everybody starts in this new land with "a blank slate, a virgin slate."

From the camp at Belstar, Davíd and Simón are relocated to the city of Novilla, a sort of socialist city, where Simón's convinced he will find the boy's mother, even though he does not know her name, where she lives, or what she looks like. Nevertheless, he is convinced that he will recognize her when he sees her.

Although life in Novilla is inexpensive – much is in fact free – Simón needs a job to properly care for the boy and quickly finds employment working at the wharves as a stevedore, unloading grain from a ship's hold and transporting the sacks on his back to a warehouse. "If this is stevedoring," Simón thinks, "it is not such a bad job. At least one is accomplishing something. At least one is helping to move grain, grain that will be turned into bread, the staff of life."

As Simón's sense of the past persists, so too do his desires. Out on a picnic with a young female receptionist, Anna, and the boy, after Anna refuses Simón's modest advances, Simón laments the bloodlessness of this new society: "Everyone I meet is so decent, so kindly, so well-intentioned. No one swears or gets angry […] How can that be, humanly speaking? Are you lying, even to yourselves?"

Simón never becomes comfortable with the asceticism practised by the people of Novilla; he still desires "storms of passion." His fellow stevedores prefer high-minded activities, like studying philosophy at the Institute, where they question "what makes all tables tables, all chairs chairs." This further frustrates Simón. Life in Novilla "is too placid for his taste."

It is on an outing with the boy that Simón sees Ynes for the first time, living in a gated community, "overgrown with ivy," called La Residencia. She is playing tennis with her brothers while her dog, Bolívar, looks on. "Her smile, her voice, her bearing – there is something obscurely familiar about her." He immediately confronts Ynes, telling her his story, telling her that he believes she is the boy's rightful mother, his rightful guardian. At first she dismisses him and he regrets "bursting in upon the poor woman."

Soon, though, Ynes decides that she wants to be the boy's mother and moves in with Davíd in their East Block apartment, displacing Simón. Ynes is over-protective of Davíd and quickly he regresses, riding around in a stroller, wearing an "eccentric, girlish blouse," with his thumb in his mouth. Simón worries that the "child will learn to look on him as an enemy, the enemy of their mother-child bliss."

Ynes, however, needs Simón's assistance when the school board forces Davíd to attend a proper school. Shortly thereafter, his teacher, Señor Léon, and the school board's psychologist, Señora Otxoa, decide that he is unfit to attend regular school and want to send him to a type of reform school, Puntos Arenas, where he will live away from Ynes, visiting only every other weekend.

Rather than be separated from Davíd, Ynes decides she wants to run away with him and their dog; Simón, too, refuses to be separated from the boy, so they set off for the north, to a town called Estrellita.

The Childhood of Jesus is a sublime and profound meditation on a myriad of subjects: on the nature of desire, for example, childrearing, the nature of numbers, the nature of reality, in general, etc. The Childhood of Jesus is a major addition to the Coetzee canon – an outstanding new novel by one of the world's master novelists.

John Goldbach's new novel is The Devil and the Detective.