While some are content to entertain, using whatever means possible – sex, violence, scenic settings, recipes – to grab their readers' attention, Coetzee, twice winner of the Booker and a Nobel Laureate, eschews such transparent tactics. Instead he prefers to embed in his fiction arguments over religion, human attitudes to animals and fellow human beings, and the limits of philosophy.
If this sounds didactically off-putting, it can be sometimes. But for the most part Coetzee writes in simple language as moreish as peanuts. You don't need a dictionary to read one of his novels. What do you need, however, is to have all your lights switched on.
Coetzee's own philosophy was perhaps best summed up by one of his characters, Elizabeth Costello, when she concluded that there is no excuse for the lack of sympathy that human beings extend towards other animals, because "there is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another. There are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination".
The notion of a "sympathetic imagination" is worth bearing in mind as you read The Childhood Of Jesus. It should be acknowledged at the outset that Jesus himself does not figure in it. Nor do Joseph and Mary.
It is not set some 2000 years ago in what some like to call the Holy Land. But it does feature a young boy named David and there is a man, Simon, and a woman, Ynes, who, while not David's biological mother and father, are happy, like Joseph and Mary, to act in loco parentis.
However, in the beginning, there is just Simon and David. They have arrived by boat in a country where the language is Spanish. My guess is that Coetzee had somewhere in Central America in mind. They are tired, hungry and have nowhere to stay. Are they refugees? Victims of some unstated horror? Survivors of who knows what? What is certainly clear is that they are two among many and dependent on the kindness of strangers, needing food and shelter and a means to earn a living.
As they soon discover, there is no shortage of "goodwill" on offer, which is easy to give because it costs nothing. Everywhere Simon and David turn there is plenty of goodwill to be had, but converting it into a meal and a roof over their heads proves difficult. Charity, like everything else, has its own bureaucracy, and Simon and David's early days in the town that will become their new home are marked by an Orwellian sense of being pawns in a game to whose rules they are not privy.
No-one, it seems, wants to know their history. No-one wants to be bothered by their memories. "People here have washed themselves clean of old ties," Simon is told. "You should be doing the same: letting go of old attachments, not pursuing them."
Eventually, Simon finds a heavy-lifting job at the docks and a place for himself and David to stay. They go to a football game which costs nothing to watch. Bus travel, too, is free, as is healthcare. But on Sundays the buses stop running and there is nowhere to eat. Forget Central America, perhaps they're on Lewis. Simon meets a woman named Elena to whom he is attracted and who is willing to go to bed with him but not with any enthusiasm, sex being to her what washing dishes might be to others. "If you like," she tells him, "you can have another go at thawing me."
But it is David who is the true focus of Simon's attention. Simon believes he needs a mother and he alights on Ynes who lives in the "Residensia", where no children are allowed. Like so much that happens in The Childhood Of Jesus, there is no rhyme or reason why Ynes should accept David as hers. In that regard, she is like Mary, and she soon comes to dote on David. Thus, when the authorities want to remove him from his school to a reformatory, she will not allow it and goes on the run.
That David is exceptional – aged six, he teaches himself to read by immersing himself in Don Quixote – is a problem for his teacher, who finds him disruptive. In this and other regards he is like Jesus, never accepting what he's told but always asking questions and providing alternative solutions. He is an individual in a society that is geared towards coping with groups. Moreover, there is no room, no time, no plan, to allow for sympathetic imagination, exemplified by David's teacher's insistence that Don Quixote doesn't exist, which the child cannot accept. "There is a Don Quixote," he says definitively. "He is in the book. He saves people."
This is the inspiring gospel according to JM Coetzee.
The Childhood Of Jesus
Harvill Secker, £18.99
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