Questions have always been a crucial part of Coetzee’s rhetorical strategy. It is the postmodern author’s version of the rising intonation used by the young to turn all discourse into a mode of scepticism regarding grand or absolute claims. In these pages a tissue of claim and counterclaim rehearses perplexities – arising from clashes between the personal and the social, the beautiful and the good, animal existence and the examined life – that have appeared elsewhere in Coetzee’s work, but never before held in such perfect tension.
The novel is a monument to moral symmetry, a cathedral of balanced cards.
It would be wrong to conclude that Coetzee interrupts the course of the narrative to pose such conundrums. Rather, they inhere in the story’s progress. As Simon and David attempt to establish a life for themselves, then set out to discover the whereabouts of David’s mother, such abstractions intermingle with the tale Coetzee has to tell. Philosophy, for the author, is something that emerges organically; it is bred from character and action rather than bare intellection, and it is all the more powerful for it.
The temptation, when faced with a book as conceptually rich and as brilliantly wrought as The Childhood of Jesus, is to describe it as a masterpiece. That would be to succumb to a hazy reverence of a kind antithetical to the author’s project. Nowhere since Disgrace have the architectural structure of Coetzee’s fiction, the import and music of his words, been so reverberantly interlinked. Yet Coetzee’s work insists that a too easy submission to myths of romantic creativity is religious mania transposed on to a profane realm.