The novel begins with Simón, a middle aged man, arriving in a propertyless, minimalist new land accompanied by a young boy called David. In the land from which they are travelling David lost his parents and Simón, a stranger, makes it his job to find the child’s mother. The book follows their attempt to find their way within this new land.
The first thing that strikes you about the story is the simplicity of the setting. There are no extravagant buildings. People live in collectively owned estates and survive primarily on a diet of bread. Simón reacts to this new setting with protests in favour of more excitement and demands for meat rather than bread. However, the residents of this new land are not only content with their bland lives but find their way of living spiritually fulfilling. One character tells Simón to “adapt to a moderate diet” because “hunger is like a dog in your belly: the more you feed it, the more it demands.” Here Coetzee champions simplicity over greed and challenges the reader to see virtue in this alternative way of living and organising.
The main theme running through the book is the idea that there are many different ways of perceiving the world and so alternative ways of living. David embodies this theme. David finds algebra difficult because for him 2 + 2 = 4 is not a straightforward calculation. He sees the sum 2 + 2 = 3 as perfectly possible. Simón reads Don Quixote to him in an attempt to teach him how to read and gets to the bit where Don Quixote mistakes a windmill for a giant. David insists that the windmill is actually a giant and is “only a windmill in the picture”. In an unconcealed demonstration of this theme, Simon explains to David that Don Quixote “presents the world to us through two different eyes.”
The movement of the characters also reflects the theme of alternative ways of living. While the story begins with the characters arriving from one land to a completely different one, it ends with them moving away again in search of a new life in a place called Estrellita.
Biblical imagery is present throughout the text. The main source of food is bread and when Simón eventually finds David’s mother they discover she’s a virgin. The story ends with David having recruited a disciple-like figure to travel with them, as it becomes clear David actually represents the figure of Jesus. Since David also appears to embody the idea of alternative ways of living, it seems Coetzee uses this biblical allegory to subtly tell the reader that the real saviour for humanity can only be a drastically alternative way of living. Ultimately The Childhood of Jesus is an intellectual adventure. Its bland storyline and prose (which reflect the lives of the characters) may not make it the most exciting story, but it is one that is rich in meaning.
The Childhood of Jesus is published by Harvill Secker, £16.99