J.M. Coetzee is an enigma. A Nobel Laureate, twice Booker Prize winner he has, or so it would seem, become the unwilling icon of South African literature. His prodigious literary output is matched in quantity only by his now voluminous public reticence. But whether this reserve is partly a well-played-out construct for the media and the academic cottage industry that has developed around his work it is, at times, difficult to tell. Watch him on youtube answering relatively innocuous questions about his novels, you will find that his equivocations and three word answers seem almost formulaic. At times he seems to be enjoying how his interlocutors squirm and sweat when they receive deflection rather than reflection. There is one where he seems to smile cruelly with what might be seen as self-satisfaction when the interviewer is left in a state of awkward confusion as he has to hastily move onto the next question.
Coetzee’s public personality is, however, seemingly at odds with his work. For his books have, after all, been some of the great personal engagements of a man who found himself uncomfortable in the world. An unwilling white male born into a country heading towards apartheid, Coetzee deliberatively questioned his position within a system he rejected. He was, as he has admitted, a man who, at a young age, found a lasting connection with European culture and yet found himself a member of a white society that Dan Jacobson referred to as one which has ‘has no roots in the past, or no past at all; [whose] present so far as it is stable, is tawdry, vulgar and thin.’
From Dusklands to Disgrace no South African has ever scrutinized in such detail what it means not only to live in South Africa as a white dissenter but to be condemned to live a cultural life which Stephen Watson once described as being ‘as deep as its pandemic linoleum’. And it is precisely this lack of culture, this lack of history, this inability to fully root a person to one’s sense of place that is at the heart of his most recent novel The Childhood of Jesus.
The narrative begins with a man and a boy who have no names and who have landed, seemingly, as refugees in an alien and yet hospitable Spanish speaking land. Unfamiliarity with the language and the anodyne and frigid attitudes of the women leave the man, who is given the name Simon by this new country, confused. The people are, as Simon says to the first woman he tries to have sex with, ‘bloodless…How can that be, humanly speaking? Are you lying even to yourselves?’ (p.37) Simon and the parentless David, the boy whose charge Simon has taken over on the boat trip to this nameless land, are nevertheless welcomed into a new world that furnishes them with new names, new dates of birth, a place to live and food to eat.
Considering Coetzee’s emigration to Australia, the immediate urge is to equate this land with that of Coetzee’s current home. Certainly there is an analogue between the supposedly insipid world that Australia is said to be by those South Africans who, unlike Coetzee, refuse to leave the place of their birth. But this analogy ends with its failure to produce the ‘barbie culture’ that is its most eminent feature. Instead Coetzee’s creation is a land where there seems to be little besides dry bread and comradeship on offer. Although Simon and the boy have ostensibly lost all memory of their past and of the land they came from, Simon has retained one thing that separates him from the rest of the male population, his libido.
Here the utopia on offer seems comparable to the dystopia of Orwell’s 1984 where women seem to have lost the desire to enjoy sex. Unlike Winston Smith, however, for Simon there is no Julia but only a string of women who seem entirely uninterested in sex. As the first woman Simon tries it on with says: ‘And these parts that are not beautiful – you want to push them inside me!’ (p40) Simon’s explanation is that he wishes, in doing this, to ‘pay tribute’ to her.
Quite where Coetzee is going with this is difficult to tell, other than it seems to be trying to adopt what might be termed ‘a philosophical attitude’ towards sex – although quite what this is, left me slightly stumped. Its result is, I feel, to make sections of the novel slightly ludicrous – there is a good reason why the Literary Review created the ‘Bad Sex in Fiction Award’ and Coetzee I think was lucky not to have achieved the accolade. But despite its silliness it still leaves the question why is the book obsessed with the idea that women in a utopian world would lose interest in sex? When Simon does get his way the sex is passionless and the woman goes on to suggest the eradication of passionate appetites is reasonable in that it rids one of ‘endless dissatisfaction’.
Sex, and unwanted unsatisfying sex in particular, has certainly played a major role in many of Coetzee’s novels. The passionless sexual massagings of the magistrate and the ‘barbarian’ woman in Waiting for the Barbarians, David Lurie’s sex, in Disgrace, with the student Melanie Isaacs that is ‘not rape, not quite that, but undesired nevertheless’, and Susan’s one night of sex with Robinson Cruso in Foe, are continued when Simon eventually manages to ‘push’ his body part into Elena in an act that is clearly enjoyed by neither participant.
Just what this motif within Coetzee’s work suggests, has always confused me. At times one feels Coetzee is submitting that men just aren’t up to the task, that what sex should be (i.e. an act of ‘tribute’) and what sex is (i.e. a miserable failure to perform and live up to the ideal), is down to the failure of men to fully understand what women require from them (i.e. the ideal coalescence of emotion and physicality). At other times I have thought that the intimation might be that people without, what Stephen Watson has termed, a ‘cultural ballast’, without a historical anchor and cultural identity, are doomed to suffer a ghostly and hollow existence in which even the natural connections and pleasures contained in sexual intercourse are withdrawn and fraught.
Certainly this sense of a lack of cultural history has been a core concern in much of Coetzee’s fiction. It was introduced in his first novel In the Heart of the Country with the character Magda and has never been far away from many others: Michael K, Cruso, Lurie, the Magistrate to name a few. However, in The Childhood of Jesus Coetzee’s old theme is to a certain extent transfigured. For although there are some parallels with Simon of the novel and the empty colonial position of Coetzee’s specifically South African oeuvre, Simon’s ‘lack of history’ is not entirely unwanted. As he says: ‘I bring no history with me. What history I had I left behind. I am simply a new man in a new land, and that is a good thing.’ (p.136) And then later to Elena: ‘I place no value on my tired old memories. I agree with you they are just a burden.’ (p.169)
But there is certainly a sense that Simon, as his libido proves, has not given up on the past. As he states: ‘But I have not let go of the idea of history, the idea of change without beginning or end. Ideas cannot be washed out of us, not even by time. Ideas are everywhere. The universe is instinct with them. Without them there would be no universe, for there would be no being.’ (p.136) And then, again, later to Elena: ‘it is something else that I am reluctant to yield up: not memories themselves but the feel of resistance in a body with a past, a body soaked in its past.’
Here Coetzee leaves the reader with the distinct impression that Simon has done his psyche some damage by escaping the land of his upbringing. And throughout the novel there is the sense, expressed perfectly by Simone Weil when she argued in her The Need for Roots, that the exile does ‘themselves a sort of violence’ when they accept the new ways of their adopted land.
As always Coetzee’s text is littered with literary allusions. There is the centrality of Don Quixote which is a novel the child David reads and carries with him wherever he goes. 1984 is also a text that recurs with both its reference to sexual frigidity and, more importantly, with its reference to the idea that 2 + 2 could equal something other than 4. Here Coetzee, as he has often done, is grappling with the conflict between Plato’s idea of the universal forms or Platonic Ideals and with the principle of individuation. In fact, so eager, it would seem, was Coetzee wanting to get the word ‘Plato’ into the text in a sequence with the child, in order to flag to the reader his intertextual play, that both he and his editors lapsed into naming, on several occasions, Mickey Mouse’s dog ‘Plato’ rather than Pluto. (p.218)
Again the problem of individuation or what Aristotle termed the distinction between the ‘specific’ and the ‘numerical’ is one that has been a regular theme within Coetzee’s work, as has been the the postmodernist ‘tick’ of marking out literary allusions. As Stephen Watson pointed out in an early essay on Coetzee these two ideas are linked. As Watson argued Coetzee’s position of ‘the colonizer who refuses’, in Albert Memmi’s terms, placed him in a complex stance with regards to idealism and action. Thought or idealism, as Watson argued, if deprived of its outlet in action would result in an immobilization, a petrification. But Coetzee seems to have retorted that conversely it is at times only thought that can save one from a position of stagnation, in that it can produce individuating identity of and in itself. This is to say that Coetzee seems at times to suggest that when the realms of action are denied to an individual, the world of pure thought can offer a form of redemptive individuation.
In The Childhood of Jesus it is David who, one feels, is the repository of Coetzee’s thinking and is the inheritor of the ideas that were once transmitted through his early characters Michael K and Magda of In the Heart of the Country. It is after all he who above all represents the notion of individuation. As Simon explains to his fellow stevedore Eugenio that:
Put an apple before him and what does he see? An apple: not just one apple, just an apple. Put two apples before him. What does he see? An apple: not two apples, not the same apple twice. (295)
Here like Lurie, Michael K etc. David becomes the personification of an identity whose pure thought rejects that empirical world of realism and action and with this he seems to transfigure into the Jesus of the title. David wants to be a gypsy, a rootless drifter sustained by thought alone, a person unattached to a history of place. However, like all of Coetzee’s novels there is no final word as this idea is always confronted by the adulthood of Simon. Simon laments to an unsympathetic Elena ‘that what is the point of a new life or a new way of encountering the world if one is not transfigure by it.’ (p.170)