Wednesday 21 March 2018

So, just what was the son of God like as a kid growing up?

South African writer JM Coetzee is one of the most respected novelists alive today. Twice winner of the Booker prize, he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 2003. Now 73, he has just published his latest novel, The Childhood Of Jesus, his first in six years.

With a title like that, it's hard not to read the book hunting for clues to the story of Jesus Christ and there are some humorous undertones, including the fact that the young boy is petulant and arrogant, but it is more likely Coetzee means this to be read as an alternative sort of bible, a book of deceptively simple stories to stimulate our thoughts on what it is to be human. (Good luck to whatever book club chooses this as their next read.)

The story begins with the young David and his guardian Simon sailing to a new country as refugees. In this new world, nobody remembers anything from their previous lives.

Ostensibly, they are in search of David's mother but they have no idea who she is.

The pair are housed by the government and Simon goes to work on the docks where he meets a group of kind-hearted stevedores who discuss philosophy on their lunch breaks.

The characters are merely props from which Coetzee can hang his various philosophical arguments, of which there are many.

Anyone looking for a good story should move along now. This is not a book to entertain. This is a book to make you think. This is a book to forcefully turn you away from mindless entertainment and set you on a journey inwards, where you ask yourself the important questions in life. It's philosophy as fiction.

There is a basic story but it is so vague and unresolved as to frustrate any reader who comes to it looking for answers. But anyone willing to have their uncertainties about life teased out will find this a very rewarding read.

As is often the case in Coetzee's work, sex and love, ageing and death get a good airing here but the really awesome extent of what Coetzee has achieved here is evident in the vast range of philosophical terrain that he manages to cover with galloping speed – is history real? What kind of shelter does mankind need to be happy? Is stealing really stealing if nobody stops the thief? Does what a person does for a living have any reflection on their character or intellect? And that's just for starters.

Part of his achievement is down to how fit for purpose his prose is. It is remarkably sparse and yet feels dense, weighted with layers and layers of meaning.

This is a comprehensive but impressively brief history of western philosophy and that is Coetzee's brilliant achievement here. It is a book that will give up new secrets on each reading, and a book that can be dipped into again and again for renewed inspiration or even comfort when the big questions become too overwhelming.

Irish Independent

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