‘You and Fidel seem to get on well together,’ he remarks to the boy once they are alone.
‘He is my best friend.’
‘So Fidel feels goodwill towards you, does he?’
‘Lots of goodwill.’
‘How about you? Do you feel goodwill too?’
The boy nods vigorously.
‘Anything else besides?’
The boy gives him a puzzled look. ‘No.’
So there he has it, out of the mouths of babes and sucklings.
So there he has it, Coetzee, spouting Biblical truth near the closing of Chapter 7 of The Childhood of Jesus. The reference was to Matthew 21:16.
and said to Him, "Do You hear what these [children] are saying?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes. Have you never read, 'Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise'?"
And Psalms 8:2.
Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have ordained strength, Because of Your enemies, That You may silence the enemy and the avenger.
The phrase soon entered the currency of idiom and had come to mean the wisdom of young children, or children who are wise beyond their years.
The passage continued and closed the chapter in a ponderous turn. Coetzee's philosophical spirit soared.
So there he has it, out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. From goodwill come friendship and happiness, come companionable picnics in the parklands or companionable afternoons strolling in the forest.
The word companionable – unusual, repeated – jogged my memory of college reading years, when I relished commentaries on stories and poems in a textbook on literature. I knew the word companionable streams was a phrase used in a poem by Keats because the import of the word companionable was emphasized in a close reading that accompanied the poem.
A few clicks in Google and it turned out I was wrong. It was by Yeats.
This was from "The Wild Swans at Coole" by Yeats:
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All's changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
The poet was revisiting a forest and lake where swans were frolicking. It was a regular sightseeing event, going for almost two decades now. At this particular visit, one could almost hear an audible sigh of melancholy as the poet gazed at the flock of 59 swans. There was marked contrast between the vitality of the swans and the world-weariness of the poet.
Coetzee, on the other hand, had Simón reflecting on missing human connections in a Spanish speaking refugee camp-like community. He was continually ignored by the people in the community who seemingly lacked for passion and energy. His attempts at flirting were unreciprocated.
So there he has it, out of the mouths of babes and sucklings. From goodwill come friendship and happiness, come companionable picnics in the parklands or companionable afternoons strolling in the forest. Whereas from love, or at least from longing in its more urgent manifestations, come frustration and doubt and heartsore. It is as simple as that.
... Is he insisting on the primacy of the personal (desire, love) over the universal (goodwill, benevolence)? And why is he continually asking himself questions instead of just living, like everyone else? Is it all part of a far too tardy transition from the old and comfortable (the personal) to the new and unsettling (the universal)? Is the round of self-interrogation nothing but a phase in the growth of each new arrival, a phase that people like Álvaro and Ana and Elena have by now successfully passed through? If so, how much longer before he will emerge as a new, perfected man?
Soreness of heart amid companionable surroundings. What are the odds?
The playful wild swans were absent in Coetzee's formulation of longing and impatience and frustration. If anything, the contrast was between the friendship of the two innocent boys and Simón's longing for an adult connection, for companionship. Simón thought he still had some way to go to renew his older self. Whereas the boys, in their innocence and carefreeness, were already perfected in their wisdom.