JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus is a cryptic tale set in Novilla, a city populated by people who have accepted the chance to live. Upon arrival residents are given new names and washed of their memories. Life is sustained on an appetite of asceticism; and hunger, like desires and impulse, is regarded as “a dog in the belly” that must be starved. There is plenty of goodwill, and social welfare thinly lines everybody’s pockets.
Middle-aged man, Simon, fresh from the processing centre has tasked himself with tracking down the mother of David, a child he had met on the boat to this present life. The boy has no recollection of her and the letter in a pouch strung round his neck is lost. Ines — the woman whom Simon, guided by intuition, decides is David’s parent — dotes on her son with profligacy. But, the six-year-old turns out to be a handful at school, supposedly from ambiguity about his heritage. As the family flees from education authorities, David, while on the road, urges others to follow him.
Philosophical questions are a provocative motif in this complex and confounding novel that, written in taut, elegant prose, infuses an enigmatic country with symbolism and soul.