Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee’s latest novel reads a bit like a fable. It’s one of those books that withholds meaning at every turn and invites the reader to make of it what she will. Looking for clues in the author’s biography is tempting but foolhardy, but admirers of the novels Elizabeth Costello or Disgrace or the superb In the Heart of the Country will not be surprised to learn that the South African-born Coetzee has written what amounts to a doctoral dissertation on the absurdist master Samuel Beckett.
In Coetzee’s fiction, the absurdity can often be found in the large and small indignities of everyday life. The Childhood of Jesus is about a middle-aged man named Simón who is looking after a young boy called David, but that may not be his real name. They met on the boat ferrying them over to a Spanish-speaking land called Novilla, where there are recent exiles. David has lost the information he carried about his mother, and Simón has promised to help him, although neither of them knows her name or what she looks like.
David, who is estimated to be 5, is in many ways an unusual child. He pretends that he doesn’t know how to read and invents his own language that only he can understand. Simón takes a job as a stevedore at the docks and hands over David to a strange woman named Inés, who refuses to let him go to school but is also incapable of educating him herself.
Beyond that, not much happens. David becomes obsessed by the idea of death. People bicker. Eventually Simón comes to a revelation about the boy: “For the first time it occurs to him that this may be not just a clever child — there are many clever children in the world — but something else, something for which at this moment he lacks the word.”
Fictional characters do not have to be likable, of course, but they shouldn’t all be annoying either. None of these characters is sympathetic or even, despite the promise of the title, which is never fully borne out, all that interesting. David’s pretty much a brat even if we are to believe he’s something like the Son of God. And Simón is prone to excess philosophizing. “ ‘I have not let go of the idea of history, the idea of change without beginning or end. Ideas cannot be washed out of us, not even by time. Ideas are everywhere. The universe is instinct with them. Without them there would be no universe, for there would be no being.’ ” There’s a lot of this sort of thing.
Perhaps the novel is meant to be taken as an extended allegory about mankind’s inability to understand the divine, or something along those lines. Good luck with that. Over a long and tremendous career, Coetzee has proven to be an absolute master of explicating what makes us human. Unfortunately, though, things didn’t quite work out this time around. The Childhood of Jesus is an indulgent and meandering novel of Big Ideas and sadly little heart.
Andrew Ervin is the author of a collection of novellas, “Extraordinary Renditions.”