The Childhood of Jesus, J. M. Coetzee, Harvill Secker, 288pp, £12.99 (hardback)
In the months leading up to the release of J. M. Coetzee’s new novel, two lecturers from his former department at the University of Cape Town published unusually personal reflections on the Nobel Prize-winning sometime professor of General Literature.
Though disagreeing in their assessment, both pieces hinged on the same observation: that it is impossible to pin Coetzee down. Writing in The Financial Times, Hedley Twidle related how, after years of ‘literary pilgrimages to various sites in Cape Town’ and writing ‘pages and pages devoted to analysing Coetzee’s early, algorithm-generated poetry’, he finally made his peace with the inscrutable author. ‘Some things should properly remain opaque to us,’ was his conclusion. Meanwhile Imraan Coovadia, in an article for the Philippine journal Kritika Kultura, described this same inscrutability as an ungenerous ‘withholding’ which ‘comes from so deep in his writing that one wants to interpret it as a compulsion embedded deep in his character’. Coetzee has never publicly explained why in 2002 he relocated from South Africa to Australia, prompting Coovadia to complain: ‘There had to be a mystery to Coetzee’s departure, … as if Churchill’s description of Stalinist Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” were a principle to speak by, and live by, instead of a place you would rather avoid.’
The opacity of Coetzee’s texts and the reticence of Coetzee the man, on which, respectively, Twidle and Coovadia’s assessments of the author turn,
find their parallel in turning points of Coetzee’s novels at which characters refuse to give an account of themselves. Establishing the motive for these refusals will begin to illuminate Coetzee’s view of the world.
Life & Times of Michael K (published in 1983) follows a hare-lipped Parks and Gardens worker who quits his job in Cape Town to push his ailing
mother in a wheelbarrow back to the Karoo farm near Prince Albert where she was born. After Anna K dies in Stellenbosch, Michael K gets caught
up in the civil war tearing apart a future South Africa and lands up in the medical ward of a government prison camp. Classified by the processing system as ‘Michaels’, an ‘opgaarder’ (hoarder of provisions for rebels), Michael must be questioned by the camp commander. We see Michael’s interrogation through the eyes of the medical officer, who has taken a liking to ‘Michaels’, and urges him to tell the whole truth to prove he was not involved with the rebels. But, however much they try to reason with him, Michael refuses to play along. ‘He smiled back craftily,’ we are told. Then: ‘His face closed like a stone.’ Finally: ‘He closed his mouth obstinately, the mouth that would never wholly shut, and glowered back.’
Coetzee’s 1999 novel Disgrace also hinges on an interrogation of an uncooperative suspect. This time it is the disciplinary hearing of David Lurie, a
professor at ‘Cape Technical University’, who has been accused of harassment by a student, Melanie Isaacs, with whom he had a brief affair. Lurie
pleads guilty as charged, but the committee he is facing wants more: a ‘statement’ reflecting his ‘sincere feelings’, made in a ‘spirit of repentance’
and indicating he is ‘prepared to acknowledge [his] fault in a public manner’. This Lurie refuses to provide. ‘Repentance is neither here nor there,’
he maintains. ‘Repentance belongs to another world, to another universe of discourse.’ As a result he loses his job and goes to stay with his daughter in the Eastern Cape.
Published between Life & Times and Disgrace, in 1990, Age of Iron takes the form of an extended letter from a terminally ill Cape Town Classics
teacher to her daughter in America. With Apartheid-era violence at its apex, the narrator finds herself sheltering two teenage rebel fighters and a drunken vagrant named Vercueil in her suburban house. While the unflinching, ‘iron’ dedication of the teen soldiers strikes her as all too familiar, Mrs Curren is increasingly preoccupied by the enigmatic Vercueil, who, like Lurie and Michael K, becomes refractory under (even sympathetic) questioning. ‘He said nothing, but drank the coffee,’ she reports. Then: ‘He shifted restlessly.’ And: ‘He shrugged, smiling to himself.’
But the pivotal withholding of this novel is Mrs Curren’s own, in the midst of a chaos of murder and arson on the Cape Flats which the Classics teacher recounts to her daughter in the mode of a descent into hell. She has driven with her domestic worker to look for Florence’s son, who is in trouble; but by the time they arrive he has been killed. ‘What sort of crime is it that you see?’ demands her guide, Mr Thabane, as houses burn and policemen look on from their vehicles. ‘What is its name?’ But Mrs Curren resists: ‘I have no answer.’ Shaken though she is, she refuses to align herself with the rebels: ‘These are terrible sights … But I cannot denounce them in other people’s words. I must find my own words, from myself.’ Before long she is dead, without ever having found the words.
In all three of these novels, an individual sees themselves confronted by a system. In each case the system is not just a social system – a scheme for ordering groups of people – but also a conceptual system – a scheme for ordering experience itself. By withholding an answer which would assign their experience a place in the conceptual system, Coetzee’s protagonists succeed (at a price) in withholding themselves from the social system.
His interrogators cannot definitively classify Michael K either as an opgaarder or as a pliable labourer for the government side. When they press
him as to his place in the all-consuming civil war, he will say only: ‘I am not in the war.’ At this point, the medical officer confesses to us: ‘Irritation overflowed in me, “You are not in the war? Of course you are in the war, man, whether you like it or not!” But the persisting uncertainty about Michael’s status is what enables him finally to slip through the net. Left unattended on the ward while the other prisoners are dispatched up-country, he scales the perimeter wall in borrowed overalls and disappears.
Coetzee consistently uses iron as a symbol for the inflexibility of socioconceptual systems and the single-mindedness required of their agents.
‘You need an iron man to run an iron camp,’ observes the camp commander in Life & Times; in Age of Iron, Florence praises the child soldiers fighting the government, saying: ‘These are good children, they are like iron, we are proud of them.’ The cancer-stricken Mrs Curren struggles to hold a vanishing strip of ground between these opposing iron meshes, seeing ‘Calvin victorious, reborn in the dogmatists and witch-hunters of both armies’. Equally, in Disgrace David Lurie sees a ‘puritanical’ streak in ‘the great rationalization’ that first transformed him from ‘professor of modern languages’ into ‘adjunct professor of communications’, and now demands ‘a spectacle: breast-beating, remorse, tears if possible’. Himself he styles,in opposition to the forces of moralism and managerialism, as an advocate of passion and spontaneity: ‘a servant of Eros.’
Coetzee characters who withhold themselves from the iron matrix come to be unsettled by the notion that their story cannot possibly be told. In
Disgrace Lurie claims his ‘is a case that can no longer be made, basta. Not in our day. If I tried to make it I would not be heard.’ To Michael K it
seemed ‘that his story was paltry, not worth the telling, full of the same old gaps that he would never learn how to bridge.’ And Mrs Curren, mulling over her descent into hell, writes that ‘everything indefinite, everything that gives when you press it, is condemned unheard. I am arguing for that unheard.’
Logically, Coetzee in his guise of professor of literature is always on the alert for structures of narrative which form the other side of the coin to exclusionary systems of administered oppression. In White Writing, a collection of critical essays, he diagnoses ‘the South African farm novel’ as such a case, due to ‘its silence about the place of the black man in the pastoral idyll, and the silence it creates when it puts into the mouth of the black countryman a white man’s words’. Likewise South African ‘poetry commemorating meetings with the silence and emptiness of Africa’, in which, concludes Coetzee, ‘it is hard not to read a certain historical will to see as silent and empty a land that is arid and infertile, perhaps, but not inhospitable to life, and certainly not uninhabited’. A society which relegated Africa’s indigenous people to third-class status, Coetzee observes, grew up hand-in-hand with genres of literature which rendered their stories untellable. The exclusion of certain people from the social system, and of their experiences from the conceptual system, is – Coetzee’s writings attest – not only a problem for those excluded. This fact finds its purest expression in ‘The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee’, published in Dusklands (1974), in which an eighteenth-century Boer elephant-hunter tells of his capture by ‘Hottentots’. After walking naked through Namaqualand for weeks to return eventually to his farm, the author’s namesake organises a ruthless punitive expedition against his captors, and reflects: ‘Through their deaths I, who after they had expelled me had wandered the desert like a pallid symbol, again asserted my reality.’
The annals of Afrikaner history teem with emblems of the ruthless determination with which a motley band of Europeans, loosely associated with
the Dutch East India Company, asserted their reality, against all odds, in an alien continent. Rian Malan (in My Traitor’s Heart) tells how when in
the eighteenth-century rumours of anti-traditional Enlightenment thought reached the frontiersmen, they saw ‘[t]hese new ideas presented a threat to their survival’, and took to ‘calling themselves Doppers, after the little metal caps with which they snuffed out candles’. Two centuries later, Andries Hendricks, a Boer grown too old to farm alone, rather than become anyone’s dependent – writes Malan – stockpiled canned food and ammunition, sold all his land but for a fifteen-feet-wide sliver on which he sank a well, and barricaded himself in with his guns behind walls of raw concrete: self-sufficient and alone in his fortress. This image resonates with Jacobus Coetzee’s conception of himself in captivity. He compares himself to a beetle which does not flinch even when you ‘pull his legs off one by one’. ‘Now I am only three-fourths dead,’ says such a beetle. ‘Now I am only seven-tenths dead. The secret of my life regresses infinitely before your probing fingers.’
But it troubles the elephant-hunter, after he has avenged himself on his captors, to think that each murdered Khoekhoe might have been ‘an immense world of delight closed off to [his] senses’. ‘May I not have killed something of inestimable value?’ he asks himself. The problem goes deeper. Without the acknowledgement of another human subject, another being whose experience one can in turn acknowledge as ‘an immense world of delight’, one’s own identity becomes precariously indeterminate. Robert Pippin has identified this idea, most fully developed by the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, as running explicitly through Coetzee’s first three novels. Indeed, one of the messages from ‘the sky-gods’ hallucinated by the heroine of In the Heart of the Country (1976) sounds, as Pippin points out, ‘like a quotation from Hegel’s famous discussion of Lord and Bondsman in his Phenomenology of Spirit’. In Dusklands the problem is expressed by Jacobus Coetzee, journeying through Namaqualand, when he complains: ‘There is nothing from which my eye turns, I am all that I see. Such loneliness!’ And later: ‘I must beware … I could explode to the four corners of the universe.’
It is from a parallel position of vertigo that Coetzee sums up in several of his critical essays. After stating his reservations about the South African
farm novel, for instance, he allows his argument to curl in on itself as he reflects on the status of those very reservations. They exemplify, he warns, ‘a mode of reading which, subverting the dominant, is in peril, like all triumphant subversion, of becoming the dominant in turn’. This destabilising reflection fits like a jigsaw piece with the thought that unsettled Mrs Curren, David Lurie and Michael K. The counterpart to the fear that one’s story can never be told is the fear that one is the agent of a system which renders stories untellable – a system which operates frictionlessly because resistance simply fails to register, or has already been annihilated.
It is this fear which motivates the more securely placed characters in Coetzee’s novels to pursue and attempt to grasp the enigmatic, withholding
presences which come within their purview. In Life & Times the medical officer feels a ‘sense of gathering meaningfulness’ around Michael K, but
a meaningfulness which falls outside his conceptual system. He comes to think of Michael K’s stay in his ward as ‘an allegory … of how … a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it’. It is when his characters strain to widen their conceptual range so as to encompass such unfamiliar meaning that Coetzee’s prose is at its most searing: curving asymptotically towards the ineffable.
When Mrs Curren seeks to form a relationship of trust with Vercueil, when the medical officer studies the ‘thickening of the air, [the] concentration of darkness, [the] black whirlwind roaring in utter silence above’ Michael K, when Susan Barton exhausts all her imaginative resources to enter Friday’s world in Foe (1986), they cannot give a justification for their efforts – even to themselves. There is nothing about these enigmatic figures which can get rational bite in their habitual framework of thought. Rather, what is necessary is, in the language of Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg (1994), an unreasoned wager: a leap of faith into the arms of the unschematisable particular.
Though Coetzee is not a Christian, many of the characteristic thought patterns in his novels have unmistakeable overtones of the cult of Jesus.
The rejection of law, the notion of a truth which cannot be fully stated but only spiralled around allegorically, the demand for faith springing from an unreasoned love – all of these are Christian themes.
Keeping this in mind can provide us with a key to Coetzee’s latest novel. The Childhood of Jesus follows Simón and David, two new arrivals in ‘Novilla’, a city in an unidentified Spanish-speaking country. This is a place where people ‘start anew’, even having new names assigned to them on entry. David, a five-year-old boy, lost the document identifying his father and mother on the ship he arrived in, but the middle-aged Simón has taken him under his wing. We join them after their six weeks in a camp for immigrants, Belstar, where they were taught basic Spanish.
To begin with, the pair are thwarted by a rigid and untransparent bureaucracy, and they have to spend a chilly first night in the open. Not for the first time in a Coetzee novel, the situation has a Kafkaesque flavour. In Life & Times, Michael K is most frequently called just ‘K’, and the camp commander takes orders from ‘the Castle’ – an allusion which flutters nicely between Jan van Riebeeck’s Castle of Good Hope (where, allegedly, Jacobus
Coetzee made his ‘deposition’) and the administrative monstrosity which tormented Kafka’s ‘K’. But whereas the iron bureaucracy of Life & Times
is time- and place-specific, Childhood provides little sense of place, and the processing system for new arrivals has the generalised feel of – as Hegel
might have put it – bureaucracy überhaupt.
In any case, they are soon settled in a comfortable flat in ‘the East Village’ and Simón finds a job at the docks with enviable health benefits. At this
stage the novel briefly revisits the preoccupations of Disgrace, as Simón complains that ‘in this new world’ there is no place for ‘passion’ and ‘desire’. All the women – or anyone else – he meets ever offer or invite is ‘a cloud of goodwill.’ But soon he becomes more preoccupied with his charge. He is convinced that he must find David a mother, and a woman he sees playing tennis at‘the Residencia’ seems to him to fit the bill. ‘I have always been sure – don’t ask me why – that I would know David’s mother when I saw her,’ he informs the favoured lady; ‘and now that I have met you I know I was right.’ Bafflingly, Inés agrees to take David as her son, and soon she has grown into a somewhat overprotective mother, forbidding him to play with the other children in their neighbourhood.
This part of the book hardly hangs together except as a parallel of the Biblical story of the Annunciation to which Coetzee’s title directs us. There are other parallels between David and the Jesus of the Bible. For one thing, he is a child prodigee with talents and insight which unsettle the adults around him. Álvaro, Simón’s foreman, teaches the five-year-old chess, and within two weeks he can beat the older man easily. Eugenio, another of Simón’s colleagues, challenges the boy to a game and within minutes is forced to resign. ‘I’ll think twice before taking you on again,’ he says afterwards. ‘You’ve got a real devil in you.’
For another thing, David, Simón and Inés (‘the family of David’, as Simón calls the trio) are forced to flee through an ‘empty landscape’ to evade the grip of the law. In David’s case it is the iron school system which poses a threat. His teacher, señor León, finds him an inattentive and disruptive pupil, and diagnoses this behaviour as stemming from a ‘deficit linked to symbolic activities. To working with words and numbers.’ He recommends David be separated from Inés and sent to the remedial school ‘Punto Arenas.’ It is at this point that the thought-patterns in Coetzee’s earlier novels and the Biblical parallels animating Childhood dovetail. Like the medical officer with Michael K in his charge, Simón sees in David’s resistance to señor León’s lessons not a ‘deficit’ but something of quite peculiar significance.v‘[W]hat if we are wrong and he is right?’ he asks Eugenio. ‘What if between one and two there is no bridge at all, only empty space?’ As in Life & Times the meaningfulness Simón attributes to avid cannot be articulated with his familiar concepts. He regards David as not merely clever, ‘but something else, something for which at this moment he lacks the word’. This murky presentiment is enough to persuade him to follow David ‘to the ends of the earth’. And so Simón, Inés and David set off towards ‘Estrellita del Norte’, to begin another ‘new life’ and acquire further new names – the book’s title giving us a hint what David’s will be.
The system which David resists is not the creation of any human society or epoch in particular. Like the Jesus of the Gospels, David does not reject
this law or that law, the law of this state or that state. He rejects law itself. Specifically, he refuses even to acknowledge the systematic logical relations which obtain between numbers and between concepts. This chimes with a general anti-rational trend in Coetzee’s recent writing. In The Lives of Animals (originally delivered as the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University in 1997) Elizabeth Costello tells the audience they must not expect a reasoned argument against the killing of animals from her. She warns them that ‘seven decades of life experience tell me that reason is neither the being of the universe nor the being of God. On the contrary, reason looks to me suspiciously like the being of human thought.’ And she does not mean to confirm this claim by means of a chain of reasoning either. ‘Of course reason,’ she scoffs, ‘will validate reason as the first principle of the universe – what else should it do? Dethrone itself?’
It is in the light of this trend that we must see the increasingly extreme measures to which Coetzee has resorted to avoid letting himself be pinned
down to any opinion with logically binding implications. These include the use of fictions based around his alter ego Elizabeth Costello at speaking
engagements, the author’s notorious cageyness with interviewers, and his more recent ploy of taking apparently contradictory views on the same subject in different contexts – whether South African writers ought to repeat ‘gruesome reports … of attacks on whites’, for instance, or whether being a primary school teacher is ‘a job for a man’ – so that the balance of his public utterances on a given topic always returns to zero.
Making an enemy, not of Apartheid, managerialism or Puritanism, but of reason itself sounds like a radical move. But the results in Coetzee’s work are remarkably banal. The prose of Childhood, like that of Elizabeth Costello (2003), is clean and clipped, with none of the meandering, freeassociating passages of Master or Age of Iron. Yet this writing of Coetzee’s anti-rational period, seeming as it does to exist less for the sake of expression than merely as an end in itself, leaves one, finally, with an impression of flatness – a flatness extending to the four corners of the universe.
By setting his face against reason he has made his stronghold impregnable to attack. But we may doubt how much ground there is left to defend once one elects to withdraw from thought itself. J. M. Coetzee began as a writer who shocked and outwitted his readers into extending the reach of their understanding, bringing a flame to faces and vistas that would otherwise have remained smothered in darkness. His recent work suggests he will end doing what he can to snuff the candle out.