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Editor’s Choice: ‘The Childhood of Jesus’ by J.M. Coetzee

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee, Viking, 277 pages ($26.95). It is widely known in literary Buffalo that only one future Nobel laureate ever passed through the much-vaunted University at Buffalo English Department and he was, for a while, little noticed by many at the time, too. It is also widely known that that writer got caught up in the fractious faculty politics of the early ’70s and in order to evade them and avoid compromise, returned to South Africa. And one quite plausible argument has it that the discomforts of faculty politics at UB were, in great part, responsible for J.M. Coetzee leaving what could have been a smooth faculty life in Buffalo and returning to what turned out to be the seedbed of a Nobel Prize (from a previous era when the Nobel Prize for Literature was truly and unequivocally the Nobel Prize for Literature). Coetzee, whose work is usually described as “stark,” even “minimalist” is a writer frequently marked by distances, exiles and strangenesses.

This is not a book about the Jesus one finds in the New Testament. It’s the tale of a new arrival in an unnamed dystopic Spanish-speaking country with a young boy who is, he says, “not my grandson, not my son but I am responsible for him” – a boy full of stories who develops an affection for an illustrated copy of “Don Quixote.”

And thereby hangs a tale of new worlds, old worlds, new lives, old lives, estrangements, abandonments, real families, makeshift families and all manner of tantalizing not-quite-allegorical events of the not-quite-familiar sort that Coetzee’s books specialize in. He is the not-quite-Kafka-or-Beckett for a post-modern era.

Whom the old man meets is, among others, a woman who says “in the old way of thinking, no matter how much you may have, there is always something missing. The name you choose to give this something-more that is missing is passion. Yet I am willing to bet that if tomorrow you were offered all the passion you wanted – passion by the bucketful – this yearning for something more that is missing is a way of thinking we are well rid of in my opinion. Nothing is missing. The nothing that you think is missing is an illusion.” Pure Coetzee.

– Jeff Simon