(Viking, 288 pp., $26.95)
J.M. Coetzee’s hypnotic new novel will be frustrating to readers who prefer their allegories clear-cut. Like his Waiting for the Barbarians, Childhood is set in a fictional environment, Novilla, where Simon, a middle-age man, and David, a five-year-old boy, have arrived after a stint at a place called Belstar. They are refugees of some kind—as is, apparently, everyone in Novilla—or at least people who have come here to start a new life. They are, in theory, cleared of their memories. Simon and David (they were given their new names when they arrived) met on the boat to Belstar. David was without his parents but had a note that was lost during the trip—”eaten by the fishes,” the boy says—and Simon, who over the course of the book becomes a kind of father to David, is determined to find David’s mother. He does, eventually, or believes he does.
The Childhood of Jesus is about many things, including the nature of the bond between a child and its parents. What to do with the book’s title? Throughout, there are strong indications that David—with his loaded name—will turn out to be a charismatic figure, one who attracts followers and attempts to save people. His inspiration, however, is by all accounts Don Quixote, a book that Simon uses to teach him to read. Simon tells the boy—significantly—it is by Benengeli, Cervantes’s fictional author of Quixote’s adventures. By the end of the book, David, like Quixote, is looking to take on a new name.