THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS, by J.M. Coetzee. Harvill Secker, 2013, 288 pp., £16.99 (hardcover)

It’s a relief after reading a lot of contemporary fiction to come across the sober prose of J.M. Coetzee. He doesn’t shout at you. He doesn’t try to force on you any kind of facial expression. He knows what he’s doing, but he’s not going to tell you what that is, and I spent much of “The Childhood of Jesus” trying to figure it out.

I can’t say I have figured it out. In the first place, it isn’t really about Jesus, except at some hard-to-pin-down allegorical level. The plot is simple enough. A middle-aged man and a 5-year-old boy, Simon and David, arrive by boat in a new country, having escaped from their homeland for reasons that aren’t made clear. Simon is not the boy’s father; they met on the boat. David carried a letter with him, which explained who his mother is, but the letter was lost before they arrived, and the man has decided to look after David and help him find his mother.

That’s the setup: all of this happens before the novel starts. The first third of the book is taken up with their attempts to settle in Novilla, a city in this new country, which seems to be run on drably utopian and vaguely socialist lines. Everyone lives in public housing blocks. The food is very basic (mostly bread — one of the book’s self-conscious biblical touches), but it’s either cheap or free. There’s a lot of incompetent bureaucracy. People are helpful, but not very helpful. Nobody seems particularly happy or unhappy. They do their part, but not more, and don’t expect or want more than they’ve been given.

Simon finds work as a stevedore, hauling grain from ship to warehouse. He tries, for the most part unsuccessfully, to satisfy his sexual desires. Eventually he starts a passionless affair with Elena, the mother of David’s only friend, Fidel. Elena is a music teacher and treats sex as the necessary relief of an uninteresting urge. They have a number of arguments about this, about the idea of passion.

Simon argues with David, too — he’s trying to teach him something about the world, and that includes a certain amount of criticism about the society they live in.

The setting is like a theater stage. Because it’s not a real place, the only parts of it we can imagine are the ones he mentions. Little details have to stand in for much larger arrangements. But the bareness of the stage suits Coetzee’s prose and gives just enough unreality to his characters to permit them to engage in inscrutably simple philosophical arguments. Simon argues with everybody, not only with David and Elena, but the other stevedores as well. He argues with himself, and these arguments take up a great deal of the book.

Here’s a typical example — Simon asks himself: “And what is he up to, anyway, with Elena, a woman he barely knows, the mother of the child’s new friend? Is he hoping to seduce her, because in memories that are not entirely lost to him seducing one another is something that men and women do? Is he insisting on the primacy of the personal (desire, love) over the universal (goodwill, benevolence)?”

Part of what’s puzzling about the book is that we can’t tell how seriously to take such questions. My guess is, not very. I don’t really buy that Simon’s sexual desires can be explained by nostalgia. And the distinction he wants to make, between the personal and universal, doesn’t seem quite right either. It also doesn’t fit the case. What sets off this burst of philosophizing is David’s declaration that Fidel is his “best friend,” and that he feels only “goodwill” toward him, nothing more. Even in the novel, the distinction between good will and passion doesn’t play out along universal/personal lines.

But Coetzee covers his tracks here, too. The other stevedores spend their evenings at something called the Institute — another one of the socialist-style arrangements designed to keep people busy. They persuade Simon to sit in on one of their philosophy classes. He walks out in disgust; he doesn’t have any appetite for their abstractions.

As I say, it’s an odd book. And it gets odder. Simon takes David on a day trip to some public park and stumbles across a woman playing tennis with her brothers. He decides, for no particular reason, that this woman, Ynes, is David’s mother and he offers the child to her. She accepts and moves into Simon’s apartment. He moves out and begins to sleep rough. Worse, Ynes is not a very good mother. She’s overprotective, and David, who turns out to have some unusual abilities, begins to regress. Simon tries to intervene — he wants to make the boy fit for society.

David’s education involves a lot of discussion about the meanings of numbers and letters, and who gets to determine them. He resists the socially-agreed-on values and sequences and makes trouble for his teacher, who tries to send him to a specialist facility. Then David proves he can learn, by reading aloud from a copy of “Don Quixote.” As the book ends, Ynes and Simon and a hitchhiker (the third king?) have set off (quixotically?) to rescue him from the good will of the authorities.

The whole novel is a kind of escape act, an elaborate rope trick. Coetzee has tied himself up in a number of narrative problems and has to find a way to wriggle out of them. The world he describes isn’t real; the main characters have no relation to each other; their quest is implausible. He invents new predicaments, chapter by chapter, and resolves them. There’s something magical about his ability to keep going.

What it reminds me of most is Peter Handke’s “Kaspar” — an experimental stage play about the way language restricts the pure freedom of a childish consciousness. Coetzee has always had the enviable ability, in a writer, to make a virtue of his limitations. But where it leaves the reader I’m not so sure.

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