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One of the immortals of world literature,
This review is from: The Childhood of Jesus (Hardcover)
This novel functions by means of two primary fictions in which the author expects us to believe. One is an afterlife in a new world, a new mode of human life with all memories erased, in a kind of postdiluvian, Huxleyan utopia. The other is the city of Novilla, to which we gain access through the medium of beginner's Spanish, the only language the protagonists can speak in this afterlife. The 'story' begins with the new-lifers arriving at a relocation centre and ends with them fleeing to another, to start over again. The first centre is located in Novilla--the Spanish word for heifer, but it suggests to an English-speaking ear 'no town / new town / novel city / novella'--the second is in Estrellita. Within this resumptive trajectory, the body of the book involves the main protagonist, a forty-something Simón, a stepfather figure teaching his five-year-old ward, David, to read, write, and count. In a true sense, Simón creates David; the boy often seems like the brainchild of the man. Given the Spanish setting and the prominence of Cervantes's Don Quixote as central pedagogic text, the most relevant template for the relationship between the man and the boy is Cervantes's prologue, in which he personifies his book, his story, as the child of his intellect:
But though I might seem to be Don Quixote's father, I am really just his stepfather, and so I will not go along with the customary practice of begging you, dearest reader, as others do, almost with tears in my eyes, to pardon or condone the faults you find in this child of mine.
Language and utterance being key issues in Coetzee's novels, it is natural to ask pointed questions as one reads the first chapter: What is the principal language of this text? Who speaks to the reader in English? Is the narrator whispering to the reader in English? The narrator narrates throughout in English, and instead of giving the reader the dialogue in Spanish, he gives it in English, à la Hemingway or Conrad. We are not told what Simón's mother tongue is, only that it is neither German nor English. Before Coetzee read a pre-publication excerpt from The Childhood of Jesus at the University of Cape Town last year, he set it in a context:
The book is in English, but it is to be understood as taking place in a Spanish-speaking country, and all the exchanges are to be understood as hav[ing] been translated from Spanish.
The writing is characteristically efficient J. M. Coetzee, only more careful than usual in its apparent simplicity. All the artistry lies in the illusion of effortlessness in the penning of it. What minor textual blemishes there are are editorial and therefore venial--for instance, lapses of the kind that appear in this passage:
He cannot believe that the person spouting this obscurantist nonsense is his friend Álvaro. And the rest of the crew seems to be marshalled solidly behind him--intelligent young men with whom he every day discusses truth and appearance, right and wrong. If he were not fond of them he would simply walk away--walk away and leave them to their futile labours. But they are his comrades whom he wishes well, whom he owes the duty of trying to convince that they are following the wrong path.
Here we have three simple remedies. Since one can't arrange an entity that is already unified, let alone do it solidly, and since the emphasis is pointedly on the number of men that Álvaro has influenced, the appropriate verb is the plural form 'seem': 'the crew seem to be marshalled'--the many become one. Then the remainder of the sentence is weakened by the awkward placement of 'every day,' which occupies the spot reserved for one-word adverbs, and which would be more comfortable lodged between 'whom' and 'he.' Lastly, since 'convince' is a transitive verb, we need an object. It can't be 'whom': that is already spoken for, linking arms with the previous 'whom'--'whom he wishes . . . whom he owes'--and belongs to 'owes.' Where then is the missing object? It has been swallowed by the second 'whom.' Logically and grammatically, the sentence should read: 'to convince them that they are following the wrong path.'
But all nitpicking aside, I honestly regard this novel as accumulatively achieving the Poundian ideal: Coetzee has made Cervantes new. Certainly, the tone of Coetzee's latest novel is a strain of Cervantes's Don Quixote, from which it draws its essence. As that book is a cut above your mere popular classic, such as Animal Farm or To Kill a Mockingbird, so is this. And to the extent that The Childhood of Jesus rejuvenates Cervantes for the modern reader, I believe it is destined to become one of the immortals of world literature. If this book doesn't gain Coetzee a third Booker, it will not be because it doesn't deserve it. Paradoxically, once the book has been translated into Spanish, the judges of the Miguel de Cervantes Prize may well take a more than special interest in it. We shall see.