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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Between the Numbers, 7 Mar. 2013
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This review is from: The Childhood of Jesus (Hardcover)
In tone part way between film and dream; in meaning almost a fable, not quite an allegory, Coetzee's new novel is a pleasingly elusive beast. Pleasing, that is, unless you prefer to pin down a coherent explanation or message from the books you read, in which case you may find The Childhood of Jesus maddening.

Taking place in an alternate but recognisable reality, the story follows a man (Simon) and a boy (David) who have journeyed from across 'the waters' to set up a 'new life' in a non-Spanish Spanish-speaking place called Novilla. They are not related but Simon has appointed himself David's guardian until he can find - purely by his own instinct - David's 'real mother.'

The book is about 90% dialogue and speech is strangely formal as the characters are not speaking in their first language. It appears to be set in a time resembling the fairly recent past. There are TVs, telephones, but no moblie phones or computers. Details of the world the characters inhabit are rationed to the reader, a morsel matter-of-factly given out now and then, when the story requires it, and the story takes unusual, sometimes absurd turns. All this creates a feverish, unstable atmosphere wherein we are unsure what to trust, nothing seems solid. Things in the book are both true and untrue, no-one eats meat... but actually they kind of do. People don't have sex... but in fact they sort of do. No-one remembers anything from their 'old life'... but they are able to discuss concepts that don't exist in the 'new life,' It is a world without religion... but religion, God and nuns are mentioned. It's afterlife as afterglow - ghostly remnants carry over from our world, incomplete, like a waking dream of a glimpse of a memory.

Picking out meaning in The Childhood of Jesus is like grasping for fish in a stream, just when you think you have a hold on something it wriggles back into the alluvion. It feels as though Coetzee is imagining our world without Christianity, proffering a Dark Knight-esque superhero origin story. Simon's role accords to the role of the biblical Simon (St Peter); a new recruit to David's 'brotherhood' near the end is called Juan (St John); the 'mother' found for David is a virgin; when Simon and David arrive at Novilla they are forced to sleep in a makeshift shelter in a yard a la The Stable etc etc. It's like the story of the nativity after a long game of Chinese Whispers. Or after having been translated into 5 languages in turn then back round into English.

But the boldly unambiguous title to this deeply ambiguous book brilliantly pulls the rug from under such an easy interpretation - not the only bit of dry humour in the piece. There is plenty in the book that does not fit with this reading, other threads that catch and release. At one point I detected something about Tea Party-ish militant rejectionism in the way the willful boy David refuses the need for 'experts' to teach him how to read, write or count. But it turns out he really didn't need their help. I even thought I was on to something when I noticed that the significant women in the story - in order of their appearance - have the initials A, E, I, O... but then it turns out the expected Senora U never shows up.

Themes emerge from the derangement: irrationality; passion; individuality; the afterlife; dissidence; uncertainty; the search for a meaning to one's own life, never mind in a literary novel. Perhaps most of all it is about reading itself. Maybe Coetzee shows a bit of leg when he has Simon and David argue about who has the right to interpret a text they are discussing. Or maybe I'm not smart enough to tease out the real meaning. Or could it be that the writer is teasing us, the readers, the interpreters, the seekers, the followers?

I don't think there is a fixed hidden meaning to decode with one's X-Ray reading specs. Written by an intellectual, The Childhood of Jesus is in fact a sensuous experience in which the real unspools. Keep it in your bookcase, you'll want to re-dream it.
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