J.M. Coetzee: His sentences are freeze-dried and packed tight
For a novelist of big skies and scorched landscapes, J.M. Coetzee is a curiously chilly writer. He was born in Cape Town, and South Africa was the setting for his early fiction. In 2006 he became an Australian citizen, and though his adopted country is far from his birthplace, the hostile Australian landscape is a near match for the terrain of his work. Coetzee’s novels take place in hot, harsh places and yet he’s a cold-blooded writer. His sentences are freeze-dried and packed tight. His people are lonely and isolated; their lovemaking is frigid, or violent; and the human body is often portrayed as ugly, like a chunk of frozen meat on a hook.
There is little compassion in Coetzee’s work. As a novelist he’s a lurker, a creepy watcher in the corner. He is unsentimental, and when he writes about the muck of life-about rape, or racism, for example-he does so without dirtying his sentences. There’s a big chip of ice in Coetzee’s heart. Where another writer might bring compassion into the narrative, Coetzee often leaves it out. The rape scene in his 1999 Booker Prize-winning novel Disgrace is a study in icy detachment. The trauma is built with a patient accumulation of details. When the academic David Lurie is set ablaze, Coetzee writes: “His eyes burn, he tries to wipe them. He recognises the smell: methylated spirits [. . .] The scrape of a match, and at once he is bathed in cool blue flame.” There are no hysterics, just the facts.
Coetzee likes to map the unexplored edges of the literary canon. His novel Foe (1986) was an imaginative flight around the plot of Robinson Crusoe. In this new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, he plays with one of the best-known stories in literature: the life of Christ. But the book’s relationship to the Gospels is an oblique one. He hasn’t recast in his own prose what we already know from the Bible, as Norman Mailer did in The Gospel According to the Son (1997). Coetzee plays a much weirder game. He invents his own simple story, and sprinkles it with subtle hints to the life of Christ. The result is a complex allegory.
The novel is set in the fictitious city of Novilla. A five-year-old boy, David, arrives in this strange city. There is a man with him, Simón. Like Joseph in the Gospels, Simón has an unusual relationship with the child in his care. Simón says that David is “not my grandson, not my son, but I am responsible for him”. The pair came by way of Belstar, a “camp”, where they spent six weeks learning basic Spanish, the language of Novilla. They’ve arrived like all newcomers to Novilla, with “no memories, with a blank slate”.
They set about the daily battles of living. Simón finds work unloading grain on the docks. They eat mostly bread and water (Matthew 4:4: “Man shall not live by bread alone”). But over time they grow hungry and restless in Novilla. Describing Simón’s thoughts, Coetzee writes:
Things do not have their due weight here [. . .] The music we hear lacks weight. Our lovemaking lacks weight. The food we eat, our dreary diet of bread, lacks substance [. . .] Our very words lack weight, these Spanish words that do not come from our heart.
Simón begins searching for David’s mother. He has promised to help David find her. He does so, yet once again the parental relationship is unusual. The woman, Inés, is not the boy’s biological mother, but she agrees to take him nonetheless. She’s an unsuitable guardian, capable of being careless about David’s safety and of smothering him at the same time. Simón’s reluctant withdrawal as David’s sole carer, and Inés’s stumbling efforts to protect the boy, are the substance of the novel’s second half.
Coetzee’s talent is not a lyrical one. Towards the end of The Childhood of Jesus, Simón has a dialogue with a fellow stevedore. At one point the stevedore, Eugenio, says: “Or for stevedoring. Stevedoring is a perfectly honourable occupation, as both of us know. No, I agree with you: your youngest is getting a raw deal.” The passage has several stutters in it. The repetition of “stevedoring”; of “know” and “no”; and of “you” and “your”, trips the tongue. And “raw deal” is a raw deal for the reader too. Coetzee has an occasional weakness for dull phrases and lazy repetitions. In Chapter 1 we meet a woman with “her hair drawn back over her ears and tied tightly behind”. In Chapter 7 there’s another woman with exactly the same hairstyle. People “rummage” in drawers and boxes, or are “taken completely by surprise”.
But these are false notes in an otherwise fine performance. This is a novel rich in subterranean meaning. It’s a novel, in part, about reading and writing. As a place name Novilla sounds a lot like the word “novella”. David and Simón learn a new language in this new place. Initially Simón feels that the “words lack weight”, but by the midpoint of the novel he tells David that in the next life they “may have to learn Chinese”. And in the final chapter David, Simón and Inés reach a place called Nueva Esperanza, or New Hope. This movement reflects the novelist’s work. The patient mastery of a new language-the language of Novilla, or of this particular novel-moves towards the contemplation of the next.
Coetzee is a moralist, and beneath the surface of The Childhood of Jesus he hides a chilly lesson. David is an imaginative boy growing up in an unimaginative place. He has taught himself to read with a children’s edition of Don Quixote. At school he refuses to apply himself and shows a resistance to “the science of numbers”. When he invents his own language-a language incomprehensible to others-he’s warned he will be “shunned”. Before he’s taken from home and sent to Punto Arenas, a “special school” for troublesome students, David speaks like a persecuted writer: “Do they want to send me to Punto Arenas because of my stories?” This novel is a parable about the writer’s place in a world ruled by cold rationalism. It’s a chilly story, like so many of Coetzee’s. Yet there is some hope for David, and some warmth in the light of his imagination.