Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: The Childhood of Jesus

The Childhood of Jesus
The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although I've read a few of JM Coetzee's novels in the past and I've always enjoyed the strong stories and characters, I've never enjoyed one his novels as much as this one. In fact, I would rank it right up there with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book I have used in the past in leading philosophy seminars.

The novel begins when two immigrants, Simon, an older man and David, a five-year old boy, arrive in a Spanish-speaking country. Neither are very familiar with the language. Simon is not the boy's father, he is not related to David. When the information letter explaining who David's parents are gets lost at sea, Simon becomes the boy's charge and makes a commitment to find the boy's mother in the new country.

The two face many frustrations and hardships in this odd, new world. Through it all, Simon manages find them a place to stay and he gets himself a job working as a stevedore, unloading boats by hand with a group of well-meaning men. David is still too young to attend school, so he hangs out at the docks, where he learns to play chess with the supervisor.

David and Simon are not their real names. These are the names the two are given at the processing center. There, they are encouraged to forget their past, their language, their history. This is a new world, and they are not to dwell on memories. Their official papers state approximate ages (based on appearances) and the two are assigned the same birthday - the day they stepped off the boat.

I enjoyed Coetzee's ability to convey the sense of displacement and alienation that immigrants feel, that sense of other-wordliness that Simon experiences as he finds everyone friendly enough, but realizes that they all think in a completely different (logical) way, their thoughts based mainly on the appearance of things.

As Simon tries to find his place in this foreign land, he begins to voice his philosophical questions aloud and his companions on the docks are more than happy to engage him in these debates. The topics include existential questions such as the meaning of a man's life, where it is to be found in work, play, or at rest, all within the context of the appearances versus reality.

David, meanwhile faces his own issues, when Simon eventually discovers the boy's natural mother. Soon, David must begin school, where his ability to conform to the class is tested. He struggles to read, to write, and to do basic math, due to "philosophic issues with numbers" as Simon points out.

The Childhood of Jesus is a truly interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking novel which I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys entertaining different ideas about the world and their life.


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  1. JT,

    I found your book review very interesting. It hooked me into the basics of the story, without divulging too much of the story.
    I have a love for philosophical meandering and so I expect this book might be of great interest to me.
    You have in effect given the post-code/zip-code, with the reader encouraged to find the rest, via the novel.
    Best wishes,

  2. Hi Eileen, I hope you do get a chance to read Coetzee's book. I'd like to hear your thoughts on it. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! :-)


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