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The Allegory of Adaptation (J.M. Coetzee)

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Coetzee is a novelist and short story writer who has written many critically acclaimed books about life in apartheid-era South Africa. His novels usually have plots that entangle complex allegories, leaving the reader with many unanswered questions. The Childhood of Jesus remains within its realm, far from any social conjuncture and closer to a philosophical heaven. Some critics have praised the novel for its lyrical prose and complex characters, while others have criticized it for being slow-paced and challenging to follow. Overall, the reviews seem to be divided on the novel’s success. Quoting Bellin’s (2013) words, the book “is a compounding and confounding work of philosophy” reflected through an inconsistent story arch and plot (Bellin, 2013).


Figure 1: Illustration of Coetzee. 2013. Antoine Maillard.

The novel, set in an unspecified time and centers around David, who arrives in a town called Novilla as a child with his companion Simón, traveling from the Lethean seas. The lack of detail and clarity in Novilla makes it difficult to understand. Uhlmann (2013) points out, the novel might fall under speculative fiction. The narrative slowly reveals that Novilla has a central economy resembling a dystopian, socialist system as the economy is central; transportation, classes and events are for free. Many citizens seem content with their lives, but many feel that life is not as passionate or exciting as it once was. This is mainly reflected in people's discontent with their jobs. As the novel progresses, Simón, David, and the character Inés struggle to adjust to their new lives in Novilla. The only element that remains consistent throughout the text is the characters’ failure to adapt to Novilla and its ideals. The novel explores themes of loss, identity, and morality through Simón's constant refusal of norms and platonic ideals. Ultimately, the narrative asks the question of what it means to be human. Through David's journey, Coetzee offers a unique and powerful perspective on some of life's most difficult questions, like "What are our coping mechanisms when our purchasing power is limited or when there is a scarcity?" When relocated, how does one express ourselves in a second language as if it were our own? Coetzee uses Simón’s and David’s maladjustment to relocating to raise issues that can be discussed from a political and ethical perspective.

The first few chapters strongly imply that the story might be about migration. Simón’s and David’s initial challenges when arriving from the refugee camp Belstar to Novilla deliver an experience which aligns with migration's confusing, torturous, and unrewarding side. Twice, Simón and David fail to reach Señora Weiss, who supposedly has the keys to their room, resulting in them sleeping in Ana’s backyard and being treated like dirt (Coetzee, 2013, p. 9). A great sense of irony is present in the resolution of Simón’s and David’s problems as they discover the door to be unlocked the third time they try to reach Señora Weiss (Coetzee, 2013, p. 20). The misfortune of missing Señora Weiss stands as a symbol of dealings with bureaucracy, experienced by immigrants trying to navigate the system. Coetzee highlights the universal phenomenon of bureaucracy's non-recognition of the foreign -the immigrant and/or the refugee. The allegory of David not being able to find Señora Weiss and consequently the key to their refuge resonate the invisibility of immigrants in the eyes of locals all over the world. Whether this is because of a language barrier or other challenges, it can result in dysfunction and difficulty solving problems for non-locals. Talking, expressing emotions in a second language, a second home is always a challenge. The inability to express oneself in a second language is an overarching theme in the novel. Simón’s distaste for having to “express his feelings in beginner’s Spanish” (Coetzee, 2013, p.127) is a difficulty that is associated with integration. While, the spoken language in Novilla is Spanish, it is no one's first language making it difficult for its people to communicate with each other.

Reading from a Blank Book by Hernand Bas (2013)

Thus, Novilla challenges Simón in terms of its ethical values and how little importance is given to human life, particularly regarding nutrition or medicine. In reality, some people, especially refugees, can find themselves in situations where finding food that satisfies their hunger to be impossible. This can be difficult, especially in places with limited options. Simón is no stranger to this phenomenon, as Coetzee presents. Simón demonstrates a certain fury for having to lower his standards of nutrition, and his desire to eat more than bread and water illustrates the difficulties associated with moving into Novilla (Coetzee, 2013, p. 129). A clash between Simón and a clinical doctor occurs as Simón self-diagnoses himself with health issues he believes to be caused by his vegetarian diet (Coetzee, 2013, p. 142). The doctor suggests that Simón should not look down on others while working in order to avoid getting tired or anxious (Coetzee, 2013, p. 146) to which Simón responds with a reprimand. He demands that meat or fruits be included in his diet, which is impossible unless he is willing to eat rat meat (Coetzee, 2013, p. 150). The first chapters portray an ethical battle between Simón who lives by his individualistic ideals against the sense of modest communalism Novilla offers. Although chapter five is about migration, it ends with a focus on "settling in." Simón’s answer to David’s question about their purpose of being in Novilla is that they have been given a chance to live and accepted it (Coetzee, 2013, p. 21).


Nonetheless, the plot quickly deviates from ‘settling in’ to a new society. In the same dialogue, Simón mentions “that there is nowhere else” to live but in Novilla (Coetzee, 2013, p. 21). Novillians cannot express themselves in any other language but Spanish, although it's not their native tongue. At the same time, Simón is in a platonic universe either debating whether sexual desire is humane (Coetzee, 2013, p. 154), or arguing that history is made up while “the idea of justice remains” intact (Coetzee, 2013, p. 137). It is as if their memories were erased or reprogrammed. However, there aren’t any hints of either scenario. These politically and philosophically dense debates that transpire between Simón and the other characters do not serve the plot in any purpose while they stand out in Simón’s absurd and philosophical universe. The lengthy discussions transmit a rhetorical Socratic-like dialogue, moving the story away from fiction and towards an essay-like narration. Rather than feeling heartfelt and emotional, the frequent philosophical debates are spread throughout the novel. Simón has a distaste for the very core of ontology, like the discussion regarding the existence of a table (Coetzee, 2013, p. 145). During a different debate, Simón goes against Alvaro’s subjectivism, claiming that ideas cannot be washed away (Coetzee, 2013, pp. 136-137). This is philosophically very interesting but paradoxical at the same time. Simón is disinterested in a subject like ontology which takes its core from universal predicaments while constantly going after universals in his moral judgment. When he is in an ontology class about where the existence of objects are discussed, he gets extremely bored (Coetzee, 2013, p. 300) which ironically contradicts his strong universal beliefs in ethical matters. He clashes with himself and the Novillan society, inevitably leading to Simon’s departure from Novilla (Coetzee, 2013, p. 329). Simón cannot conform to Novilla's ethical values and desires to start a new life elsewhere with David.


Figure 3: "J. M. Coetzee’s Unsettling Trilogy About a Possibly Divine Boy," June 2020, the Atlantic, Karolis Strautniekas.

Thus, maladjustment or nonconformity becomes the overarching theme. Against Novillans' stoic resistance to pleasure, Simón's desire to find sexual relief remains an issue throughout the novel. He gets into a sexual companionship with Elena which ends up in both having different means as Elena is certain that sex does not advance anybody (Coetzee, 2013, p. 74). Influenced by certain utilitarian idealism, the Novillian lifestyle against sexual pleasure does not appeal to Simón as he believes that sex is not just about necessary bodily pleasures to human nature (Coetzee 2013, p.160). Similarly, David refuses to learn numbers but sees them as “islands in a great black sea of nothingness” (Coetzee, 2013, p. 177). From his perspective, serial numbers are like images randomly put together and do not conform to a realm of logic in which numbers are consecutive. By believing this, David ruptures Novilla's rigid organization by refusing to participate in a system where everything functions sufficiently, but nobody seems to be genuinely alive. Even Simón desires David to become more like "a normal boy," forcing him 'to be clever with numbers' (Coetzee, 2013, p. 176) and forcing him to read Don Quixote (Coetzee, 2013, p. 252) regardless of the irony. Simón, while praising the "rules of arithmetic," disagrees with Novilla's logic of 'complicating' his life. His failed attempts to normalize David while praising his smartness clearly conflict with Inés' values and style of educating her child. Simón, later, asks David whether he likes Don Quixote, to which he responds that reading the whole novel would take too long, and he can imagine the end (Coetzee, 2013, p. 254). David is, of course, a Quixote-type character who holds onto his beliefs despite society's conventions, lacking rationality at times. On a more superficial level, he seems like a genuine child unable to read through the book's ambiguities and gaps. As Uhlmann points out, both Simón and David get condemened or rather not fit in Novillan society because they live in the present rather than corresponding with the real (Uhlmann, 2013). The narrative once again focuses the topic of relocation and the grimness of settling into a new land is investigated.


The Childhood of Jesus cannot help but leave readers unsettled and uncertain about what happened before the arrival to Novilla. Whether readers agree with its conclusion or not, The Childhood of Jesus is sure to leave the reader thinking long after they've turned the last page. The novel sheds light on an overwhelming amount of ethical issues like child education, what is "normal," and the ontological realm of physical extensions, such as the table, which do not seem apparent at first sight. The novel challenges readers to consider the universal versus the personal, and what it means to be truly human. On the other, hand, it does not provide the reader with a substantial plot. The protagonists, Simón and David, constantly fail to adjust to Novilla's ideals, beauty, math, abstinence, Novilla's vegetarian diet, and its bureaucratic organization. The children's version of Don Quixote is the only literature in the library. The imaginary Don Quixote in The Childhood of Jesus is not attributed to Cervantes but to Cidi Hamete Benengeli, a fictional Moorish author whom Cervantes pretended to be translating (Coetzee, 2013, p. 369). There are many irrelevant conjunctions left unexplained. Despite Coetzee's often critical views of literature, his new book is successful because it portrays a play on ideals versus singular experiences.



Bibliographical References

Coetzee, J.M (2013). The Childhood of Jesus, (3rd edition). Ballantine Books. Bellin, R. (2013). A Strange Allegory: JM Coetzee’s "The Childhood of Jesus."[Review of the Childhood of Jesus, by J.M. Coetzee]. Los Angeles Review of Books, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/magical-child-troubled-child-on-jm-coetzees-the-childhood-of-jesus/ Farago, J. (2013). J.M. Coetzee's Stunning New Novel Shows What Happens When a Nobel Winner Gets Really Weird, [The Book Review of the Childhood of Jesus, by J.M. Coetzee]. The New Republic, https://newrepublic.com/article/114658/jm-coetzees-childhood-jesus-reviewed-jason-farago Markovits, B. (2013). [The Book Review of the Childhood of Jesus, by J.M. Coetzee]. The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/mar/02/childhood-of-jesus-jm-coetzee-review Uhlmann, A. (2013) Signs of The Soul [Article and Book Reviews of Murnane and the Childhood of Jesus, by J.M. Coetzee]. Sydney Review of Books, https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/signs-for-the-soul/


Visual Sources

Cover Image: Kolakovic, S. (2013). Illustrated for the Article, The Childhood of Jesus, by JM Coetzee." Twidle, H. March 8, 2013, Financial Times.] Retrieved from: https://www.ft.com/content/151395ea-84e4-11e2-891d-00144feabdc0


Figure 1: Maillard, A (2013). Illustration of Coetzee. Retrieved from: https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/what-would-j-m-coetzees-jesus-do


Figure 2: Bas, H. (2017). Reading from a Blank Book. Used for the article, ["Coetzee’s Radical Masterpiece."Lorentzen, C. (n.d). Harper's Bazaar] Retrieved from: https://harpers.org/archive/2020/09/coetzees-radical-masterpiece-jesus-trilogy/


Figure 3: Strautniekas, K. (2020) from 'J. M. Coetzee’s Unsettling Trilogy About a Possibly Divine Boy.' W.Deresiewicz, 2020, June, The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/coetzee-death-of-jesus/610585/







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