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the-childhood-of-jesusDo you remember the first time you heard ‘Penny Lane’, by The Beatles?

All those unremarkable townsfolk plodding through their day as you tried to unscramble the lyrics and make sense of that litany of minutia. In Penny Lane… We see the banker sitting waiting for a trim. Wait, that’s the banker who never wears a mac, right? In the pouring rain? (Very strange.) Even when the song is tired and familiar, your brain still ticks and whirrs over the words whenever you hear them because the human mind instinctively needs to find meaning.

JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus works in much the same way, insofar as it’s almost impossible to resist following Coetzee down his rabbit-hole of symbolism. The Childhood of Jesus actually walks readers through the childhood of a boy called David. At five years old, David has arrived as a refugee to the city of Novilla, in an unnamed, Spanish-speaking country. He is sans parents, sans knowledge of his background, sans any identity at all that will satisfy the officious local authorities (even his name, David, is assigned to him on arrival). David’s only friend in the world is Simón, a middle-age stranger he met on the boat to Novilla and who has promised to help him find his mother.

As you’d expect from a Nobel laureate (Coetzee was awarded his Nobel Prize back in 2003) this is a beautiful fable, introducing a world that is recognisable, yet disturbingly foreign. It feels like a half-remembered (and often sinister) dream, where everything means something and some things mean everything. The story is saturated with religious allegory and readers could easily disappear inside a vortex of lost Sunday School scriptures. Why, those good-hearted wharfies must be Christ’s disciples, you know, those fishers of men? And that virgin mother? Well, no prizes for guessing that one. There are truncated bible verses aplenty, and talk of new immigrants being ‘washed clean’. (Although that possibly alludes as much to Australia’s assimilation, sorry, immigration policy over the years as it does to the Good Book.)

In true Coetzee style, the sparse prose of The Childhood of Jesus, and its apparent preoccupation with Christianity, belies the astonishing breadth and depth of the novel within. It covers some wide territory. Sure, Jesus Christ is in there, but this is just as much a story of outsiders, the human condition, hope, beauty, literary censorship, political power and so much more. Plus, given the author’s propensity of late to write himself into his fiction, it’s just possible you might spy Coetzee in there, too.

The Big Issue, Select Review, April 2013

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