hFrom Erin: Thank you Jill for another lovely book club gathering… I think we all agreed JM Coetzee is a philosopher who communicates complex dilemmas / questions via seemingly uncomplicated prose and plot. It was interesting to discuss what he was trying to represent by the various characters and situations, but surely we agreed he has a ‘mother’ quest theme….
Follow up from Jill: I had no idea when I first read the book and suggested it for our bookclub, then researching the facts, how in depth the philosophies, the allegories, opinions, political and otherwise were! I found it all quite overwhelming but fascinating. I needed to hear all your opinions to help me sort out my own confusion.
One question you asked Laura. Why was the story of Don Quixote chosen? We didn’t discuss that, and I had the same question in my mind through the story but didn’t research it.
Here is a part answer of sorts. Coetzee invites us to consider philosophies of fiction. Why is Spanish the language spoken in his invented world? Because it is the language of Don Quixote, the Ur-novel, one of the first to pose the question of what realism is and what fiction is for. Which is more “real” more useful in navigating our existence: Quixote’s reckless romancing or Sancho Panza’s stolid pragmatism?In the Childhood of Jesus it becomes the springboard for an exchange between David and Simon about the nature of fiction. ” You can move your lips and make up stories in your head, but that is not reading” warns Simon.
I had another question we didn’t discuss, I should have checked my notes better. David’s imagination about the barbed wire surrounding the Punta Arena special school that it was recommended he attend. As we read there was none, according to the teacher from the school. Was it to just get the attention of his ‘parents’ so he wouldn’t need to go, or, was he being just a willful naughty boy just to see what their reaction would be, or, was there in the depths of his mind a feeling of entrapment and injustice from the safe world Inez had suffocatingly cloistered him in?
I know, I must put this book to rest! How I’d love to meet the author to hear his views. Apparently he’s a very quiet and solitary man who doesn’t deal well with public appearances, and usually tries to avoid interviews.
Coetzee won the Nobel prize for literature in 2003, at the age of 63.
He was given the prestigious award for his ability to write stories that in innumerable guises portray the surprising involvement of the outsider.
Quote: “The absence of consistent logic forces one into all kinds of contemplation on serious issues”.
Since The Childhood of Jesus is still fresh in my mind, I am curious to read The Schooldays of Jesus to see how the life of this unruly but interesting child continues, and whether Simon and Inez still play a major part in his life. There is something about the writings of this author that plays on my mind:)
From the Penguin Random House:
In The Childhood of Jesus, Nobel Laureate and two-time Booker Prize–winning J. M. Coetzee returns to the allegorical style of his acclaimed 1980 novel, Waiting for the Barbarians. A middle-aged man named Simón and a six-year-old boy named David arrive at the town of Novilla in an unspecified, Spanish-speaking country. They have come from a camp, by boat, and appear to be refugees, though from what is unclear. Strangers in a strange land, they hope to start a new life in Novilla and to find David’s mother.
Simón arrives with one unshakable conviction: that he will know the boy’s mother when he sees her—a conviction based entirely on intuition. He has never seen David’s mother, has no photographs of her, does not know her name or anything about her. Nevertheless, he has no doubts that he will recognize her.
Shortly after arriving in Novilla, Simón takes a grueling job as a stevedore, unloading the sacks of grain that will be used to make the bread on which the town relies, almost exclusively, for its nourishment—as if to refute Jesus’ assertion that man cannot live by bread alone. Indeed, Simón finds the blandness of life in Novilla exasperating. He engages in one argument after another: with his boss and fellow stevedores; with Elena, the mother of David’s friend Fidel; and virtually everyone else he meets in Novilla. His suggestion that the dock workers use a crane to liberate themselves from brute labor and allow them to do more meaningful work is met with bafflement, just as his need for sex and what Elena calls “the something-more that is missing” is dismissed as a hopeless illusion, impossible to satisfy and foolish to pursue.
While out for a walk, Simón and David encounter a woman playing tennis and Simón instantly “knows” her to be David’s mother. Though she has never seen David, Inés reluctantly agrees to take over the care of the child. Absurdity slides into reality, as Inés fully assumes the role of mother, becoming as fiercely overprotective as if she had borne and raised the child herself.
Then there is the question of David’s education, both formal and informal. At home, Simón tries to answer David’s many dogged existential questions: How are people different from “poo”? What are dead bodies? What is value? At school, David infuriates his teacher, Señor Leon, with various acts of “insubordination”: refusing (or pretending not to know how) to read or count, and disturbing his classmates. The school psychologist wants to separate David from his “parents” and place him in a special school, far from home, a plan which Inés and Simón vehemently oppose.
Novilla—the word contains echoes of villa, village, and novel—is a strange and unsettling place, or rather a no-place, a stripped-down stage set on which the characters carry out their Beckett-like philosophical debates. The inhabitants have been “washed clean” of their former lives as well as all desire for something more. They are content with things as they are, no questions asked. They are, as Simón notes, a passionless people, incapable of either irony or strong emotion. “No one swears or gets angry. No one gets drunk. No one even raises his voice” (p. 30). They do not suffer from the need for meaning, purpose, sexual and spiritual fulfillment that afflicts Simón. But have they transcended such desires or merely accepted a diminished version of full human potential?
Much in The Childhood of Jesus remains ambiguous, including the title itself. Is David a Christ figure? His “mother,” Inés, is a virgin. When his teacher tells him to write “I must tell the truth” on the blackboard, he writes “I am the truth” instead. Biblical references abound, but don’t seem to point to a coherent allegorical design. Or do they?
Coetzee’s magical and austere novel invites readers to investigate the many existential questions raised within its pages, as well as the larger question of the purpose and meaning of the novel itself.
ABOUT J. M. COETZEE
J. M. Coetzeewon the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003 and is the author of twenty-one books, which have been translated into many languages. He was the first author to twice win the Booker Prize. A native of South Africa, he now lives in Adelaide, Australia.
Potato Chili. Serves 8.
( I doubled up on the onions, garlic, carrots and celery)
I cup dried green or brown lentils. I used both.
1 19 oz can kidney beans.
1 19 oz can chickpeas.
1 19 oz can chopped tomatoes with juice.
2 cups tomato sauce.
2 cups vegetable stock.
3 potatoes diced.
I large onion chopped.
2 carrots chopped.
I celery stalk chopped.
I red or green pepper chopped.
2 garlic cloves, crushed.
2 tablespoons Chili powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil.
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper.
1/2 cup plain yogurt, optional.