Sly humour lurks behind Coetzee’s mastery of bleak prose

IN an interview in 1983 – when he was still prepared to comment on his own fiction – Coetzee said: “Everyone seems to see bleakness and despair in my books. I don’t read them that way. I see myself as writing comic books, books about ordinary people trying to live ordinary, dull, happy lives while the world is falling to pieces around them.”

This is worth bearing in mind when reading his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, which at first glance resembles an odd cousin to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic father-and-son odyssey The Road, with bureaucrats, not cannibals, for antagonists.

A man and a boy, Simón and Davíd, arrive, after a journey over sea and desert, in a Spanish-speaking town where refugees are resettled (refugees from what, we don’t know).

On the way, Davíd lost a pouch containing a letter his mother wrote to identify herself; he doesn’t remember her name or what she looks like. Simón isn’t his father; he’s with Davíd only because he was trying to help him find the pouch.

Their initial quest for somewhere to sleep is a fount of Coetzeean comedy in full flow. A receptionist directs them to an official whose office they can’t find; when they do, she’s not in, so the receptionist invites them to stay with her instead, which turns out to mean sleeping in her garden.

When Simón asks where he might buy meat, he’s told to catch rats: “But who eats rats? Do you eat rats?”

“No, I wouldn’t dream of it. But you asked where you could get meat, and that is all I can suggest.”

Their next quest – once Simón secures a job as a docker: dangerous work for a middle-aged man – is to find, or rather, choose, Davíd’s mother. Simón settles on Ynes (“holy”), a woman from a posh part of town, who coddles the boy until at last she lets him go to school, where his stubborn behaviour – he refuses to read or count – prompts his teacher to threaten him with expulsion to a faraway remedial facility reputedly fenced with razor wire.

You wonder how, or if, the title will prove significant, which makes it a brilliant choice from a writer whose titles – Disgrace aside – seldom add much to the experience of reading his work. The question of whether Davíd’s teacher is right, or whether Simón should (as Ynes says) help him to flee, ultimately concerns the nature of belief and – perhaps – what it might mean for us to recognise divinity when we see it.

The ending supplies no answers, unless you count the novel itself as a riposte to those doubters who reckoned Coetzee’s recent phase of not-quite-autofiction would prove to be his final artistic resting place. How will he surprise us next? – The Daily Telegraph

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