If J.M. Coetzee’s new novel is, as its title suggests, about the Biblical Jesus, it is so only at several removes, and frequently parodic ones at that. “The Childhood of Jesus” seems in some ways a return to the dystopian impulses behind the Nobel laureate’s 1980 classic, “Waiting for the Barbarians.” In the earliest drafts of that novel, white South Africans retreat to Robben Island, home of the notorious apartheid-era prison, where they await United Nations boats to carry them into exile. Now, in “The Childhood of Jesus,” displaced characters are once again delivered to a new world.
After surviving shipwreck, a middle-aged man, Simón, arrives in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country with a boy, David. In a refugee camp, they have been assigned names and ages, 45 and 5 years, and whatever evidence might have existed of David’s true parentage has been lost. Although not David’s father, Simón commits himself to a duty of care, taking employment as a stevedore, providing simple food (bread, fruit, no meat). He negotiates the benign but inflexible logic of the country’s bureaucracy, which resembles a drab socialist utopia where buses are free and people improve themselves through evening classes. Nothing, however, is particularly easy: Initially, they have little to eat, and the rules of their new home are often opaque.
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The Childhood of Jesus