Written in close third person, from the perspective of Simon, a man whose main task it is to find the mother of a boy, David, to whom he has become attached as a sort of guardian. They have arrived in a strange Spanish speaking land, via a resettlement camp, where the inhabitants seem to have been cleansed of the disagreeable human traits, such as lust, desire and anything remotely frivolous. Simon has trouble accepting this and is constantly questioning the behaviours of the people around him. E.g. how can they be satisfied with a diet of bread and water, and do they not miss physical contact?
He finds employment as a stevedore, manually unloading grain at the docks only to later find that the grain is stockpiled and left unused whilst it is eaten by rats. When he questions this, and also asks why a crane is not used instead for the sake of efficiency, he discovers that the main purpose of the work seems to be the work itself and the comradeship of the workers.
Against this backdrop he pursues his goal of finding David’s mother, though David seems to be relatively ambivalent about it. In his pursuit he seeks to do the right thing and instil in the child both a moral code and a thirst for life which frequently comes into conflict with their new environment and with David’s apparent autistic tendencies.
I read purely for enjoyment and tend not to look for - or notice - deep meanings and analogies of which, given the books title, there could be many here. However, personally, I think that Coetzee is having a bit of a laugh with us. The writing throughout is brilliantly clear, crisp and simple. Mostly set in dialogue, it is an easy but engaging read and, most importantly, very, very funny.