28 September 2020

Notes on The Childhood of Jesus


A writer deliberately wanted to be inscrutable on the page, and it was the fault of the reader not to see the thicket for the bush. In the beginning were words, and the words were with the novelist, and the words were inscrutable to the reader. 

The title of the book was a devil trick of the novelist. The first few chapters were not indicative of any hallowed subject. The nature of the divine did not knock on the page. It was not simply granted for the atheistic reader. But why invoke the son of God into the discourse if this was not a superhero's tale?

David, the precocious boy in the book, was a Chess whiz. He easily beat an old man in a blitz chess. The man would surrender and say, 'I'll think twice before taking you on again ... You've got a real devil in you.' Can you make it any more obvious, Sir?

There definitely was something different about the boy's disposition. He doesn't like chess even if he is very talented in it. He doesn't flinch when a physical threat of violence was made right in front of him. He doesn't like violence. There was something of a pacifist, if not divine, in his comportment. But the Coetzee school of writing still resisted the equivalence of his childhood with that of sweet Jesus.

* * *

A novel is not a vaccine that could trigger an immune response to the reader. But there are certain writers who have a way with stringing words together that could trigger mass delusion on the part of the thirsty flock. An extreme case, at the end of the spectrum, was the Coelho school of writing. This was a writing characterized by an imposition of hack ideas and quack medicine about finding alignment in the universe for the circumstances to constellate into your own Personal Legend.

Another extreme case, at the other side of the spectrum, was another instance of "placebo effect", a novel variant. This was the Coetzee school of writing. This writing was not sociable, hardly helpful, full of ludic misdirections. It was not the sub-meter accurate GPS device truth-seekers yearn for. 

'What did she mean? Do you really want to push something inside her?'

'It was only a manner of speaking. She meant that I was trying to force my ideas on her. And she was right. One should not try to force ideas upon people.'

It was quite a leap: the forcing of ideas on someone (or in a novel) was satanized as sexual assault. I may be taking the dialogue out of context. In this novel, it was quite impossible to force meaning out of words when it was the meaninglessness of life itself that seemed to emerge like a castle of sand.

On page 42, a running joke on rats to prove a point that we were not reading a gospel.

'It seems to me,' he continues, 'that a growing child needs more variety, more nourishment. One cannot live on bread alone. It is not a universal food. You don't know where I can buy meat, do you ... ?

Álvaro scratches his head. 'Not around here, not around the docklands. There are people who catch rats, I have heard tell. There is no shortage of rats. But for that you will need a trap, and I don't know offhand where you would lay your hands on a good rat trap. You would probably have to make it yourself. You could use wire, with some kind of trip mechanism.'


'Yes. Haven't you seen them? Whenever there are ships there are rats.'

'But who eats rats? Do you eat rats?'

'No, I wouldn't dream of it. But you asked where you could get meat, and that is all I can suggest.'

He stares long into Álvaro's eyes. He can see no sign that he is joking. Or if it is a joke, it is a very deep joke.'

A trap with a trip mechanism for catching rats? Why belabor the talk of rats when the suggestion was absurd in the first place? And this coming from a vegan author of The Lives of Animals

And: "One cannot leave on bread alone". We know what you're trying to do there, Mr Coetzee.

Later on, a villainous character was introduced, a new worker in the docks.

The next day a stranger makes his appearance at the docks. He is small and wiry; his skin is burned a deep walnut shade; his eyes are deep set, his nose hooked like a hawk's beak. He wears faded jeans streaked with machine oil, and scarred leather boots.

The amount of words Coetzee heaped upon the character, Señor Daga, indicated that this guy was up to no good. Here at least was a novelistic trope we could rely on.

Come pay time, all workers lined up to receive their pay. Señor Daga received money from the paymaster.

'What's this?' says Daga.

'Your pay for the days you have worked,' says Álvaro.

Daga picks up the coins and with a quick, contemptuous movement flings them back in the paymaster's face.

'What's that for?' says Álvaro.

'Rat's wage.'

'That's the rate. That's what you earned. That's what we all earn. Do you want to say we are all rats?'

Later there was fight between Señor Daga and Álvaro. Daga wounded the latter with a knife before mounting the paymaster's bicycle and skirting away.

The boy David would ask his guardian: 'Why is he called Señor Daga?'

Simón the guardian would reply: I don't know if Daga is his real name. It doesn't matter. Names don't matter. If he wants to call himself Daga, then let him.'

Throughout this part I was laughing. Names do matter, especially in the Coetzee school of writing. In Tagalog, the word daga, with the accent in the second syllable, actually means a rat. A rat's wage for a rat. Tit for tat.

* * *

So much for the first seven chapters of this first book in the Jesus trilogy. In spite of the flashes of humor, there was no reprieve for the reader. The opaqueness of its presentation, borrowing from the Kafka school of narrative, was jarring. So far, the experience (as perceived by this reader) was antithetical to the communion of reader and writer as perceived by Martin Amis.

The relationship between the writer and the reader is a mysterious one, and rather unexamined in my view. At its simplest, it’s a matter of straightforward transmission: I am telling a story. But it goes much deeper than that, until reader and writer become identical, almost indivisible. One mustn’t, of course, baby the reader, but one must be very considerate of them. The frame of this novel is a direct dialogue with the reader.

Contrary to what were emphasized above, the novelist in question (Coetzee) was very inconsiderate of the reader. To hell with the reader. And isn't it concerning that reader and writer could become one and the same, like one is being possessed by the other? That's a disenchanting thought. It's like forcing ideas on the reader.


  1. I'm not sure I will make this my first Coetzee especially since I prefer mouse folk to rat folk "Police Rat" notwithstanding. Your post sure was entertaining, though!

    1. Ha! I miss that ratty story. This particular book is a chortle. But I heard Jesus died at the end of the trilogy. What a spoiler.