Stripping down prose is not a risk-free undertaking. The excision of adverbs and the passive voice is sound practice in journalism. However, to make very bare writing a thing of beauty in fiction requires enormous skill. Hemingway’s short stories — those clean, well-lighted places — manage it. Despite its author’s fellow possession of a Nobel prize, J.M. Coetzee’s new novel does not. In The Childhood of Jesus the South African eschews the baroque only to tend to the banal. Davíd and Simón arrive by boat in an unmanned Hispanophone country.
They come to the city of Novilla, where a bureaucracy serves the needs of newcomers. Davíd is about five. Simón, a grown man, is not his father but has taken on Davíd’s care in the absence of his parents.
Simón finds work as a stevedore. Walking outside the city they encounter a woman called Ynes, who accepts Davíd as her own son. She steers the boy away from Simón. As he begins his formal education Davíd proves a holy terror, and risks removal to a remedial educational complex at a place called Punto Arenas.
The title of the novel suggests Davíd is a riff — to choose another gratuitous Spanish term — on El Niño, the Christ child himself, but the text is equivocal on whether he is genuinely touched or merely troubled. His possible development of his own private alphabet is counterbalanced by a conviction of the efficacy of a cloak to instil invisibility that seems simply — and uncomplicatedly — childish.
But the greatest problem with this novel is its loose depiction of place. The unnamed country, the conceit that individuals arrive there shorn of their pasts and the blend of frank oddity and urban drabness in Novilla (free buses, and prostitutes, who are termed therapists) all seem an attempt to prove that the novel is fundamentally an art form of ideas, not one rooted in setting. These affectations are an extension of Coetzee’s recent metafictional experimentation in Summertime, which professed to be the story of the writer’s own biographer at work.
The problem here, though, is that a refusal to acknowledge place, together with such flat, banal language (‘Everyone comes to this country as a stranger. I came as a stranger. You came as a stranger. Ynes and her brother were once strangers’), creates a novel that appears to be set inside a train set or diorama rather than the world. Tellingly, the most potent section of The Childhood of Jesus occurs when a psychiatrist assesses Davíd; ‘There is still something missing, something that goodwill or love cannot supply,’ she says. She might be talking about the book as a whole.
While never an adherent of the baroque, Coetzee has, earlier in his career, shown higher stylistic flourishes; there is nothing in The Childhood of Jesus to rival Waiting for the Barbarians on male fear of menstruation (‘a woman’s flux is bad luck, bad for the crops, bad for the hunt, bad for the horses’), nor the piquancy of Elizabeth Costello in the eponymous novel, who remarks ‘why are there so many African novelists around and yet no African novel worth speaking of?’)
In its defence The Childhood of Jesus is beautifully put together; the marquetry of narrative is as competent as one would expect from such an experienced practitioner. Its intellectual enquiries, such as the dockers’ mediation on the nobility of manual toil over mechanisation, are not without interest either. But overall the reader finds himself in the same position as Simón, who considers the nameless land ‘too placid for his taste, too lacking in ups and downs, in drama and tension’.
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