The fallabilities of recording and understanding history are not new field of J.M. Coetzee’s writings; “the Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,” the latter story of his debut Dusklands presents us with a fractured yet whole history; fractured in the different reports and pieces of the narrative as a whole left out, but whole in its presentation; a first person narrative, an appendix from a fictitious descendant of Jacobus, and other add-ons (the use of J.M. Coetzee’s surname for the main character may also be seen as a conscious anchoring of the fictitious history in real history, forcing the reader to judge for themselves.) Later, in Waiting for the Barbarians, we are presented with an unlodged and nebulous environment, in an unnamed land populated by the denizens of ‘the Empire’ and also the mysterious ‘barbarians.’ Here history is a straining force; the barbarians alien approach to time and the importance of history can be unsettling.
Coetzee’s 2013 novel The Childhood of Jesus has a similar unlodged setting, but on a much more drastic scale. I have read some reviews that glance over this, claiming that it is Coetzee simply moving aside the humdrum lynchings of story, setting and other extrapalative description to make room for philosophical waxing in the novel, and space for the reader’s interpretations to blossom upon unanswered and often unspoken questions presented throughout. I believe that this unlodging of history and environment, being unusual in texts, forces the reader, through their discomfort, to mine for histories that are not there.
The Childhood of Jesus feels very open in terms of space, yet is populated with many characters. The space in question is an unnamed land, where Spanish is spoken, (a similar confusion created as when Coetzee used his own surname for Jacobus?) or, more accurately, the populace has to speak Spanish, as we learn that Simón and David had to learn Spanish on the boat to Novilla, the main city. We know that Simón and David came by boat, from a camp called ‘Belstar,’ and that is about as far back for either of them that we are given. We are allowed some insights into these journeys; David loses a document on the boat supposedly detailing who his parents are, which is how he meets Simón, and Simón comments that the portmaster at Belstar will only allow boats out, not back to Belstar.
The main characters are the only two we ever really get even a shallow insight into. The other Stevedores that Simón works with at the docks at Novilla engage only in the present, to the extent that they are dubious of ‘moving with the times’ and using a crane to save their heavy lifting, or to acknowledge the accumulation of the days upon days of shipping grain to a store that is overflowing and infested with rats. The epitome of such misplacement of past or future thought is Senór Daga, who acts with no understanding of consequence; he robs and engages in violence, and generally seems to float through his life.
As such, the reader latches onto the small details we are afforded. David’s history, at least for the most part, we get to witness being built, but Simón’s we have not witnessed. We know small details; he had to learn Spanish, he can drive, his father pushed him high on the swing but he never fell off as a child, we know his hands were soft before becoming a stevedore and we know he is middle aged. This is the most we ever really get to know about any character; Coetzee offers us a line into Inés’ past when Simón says of her past at the luxurious ‘La Residencia; “I have no idea what it was like. I have never understood La Residencia or how you landed up there.” Alas, Inés “does not hear the question, or does not think it worthy of reply.” (Coetzee, p.312) Although it is mainly stressed with Simón and David, it is suggested that every character met is not native to this land, that they too had a history elsewhere, but are now fixed into the present, somehow landing up wherever they landed up, Inés in La Residencia, and Simón and David in the blocks.
The novel ends with a group of characters breaking free of Novilla and the small and barren satellite towns it grows, onward to the town of ‘Estrillata el Norte.’ (Even the place names appear unlodged from a past or hint at environment; “They strike a town name Laguna Verde (why?- there is no lagoon)”) (Coetzee, p.310) Where they will cut off the short history the reader has been allowed an insight to, namely the histories of the characters in Novilla, thus denying the reader even the relevance of this short record. However, Coetzee’s latest book is a sequel entitled The Schooldays of Jesus, and so we shall have to see what residue of history we can drag across the gap.
Coetzee, J.M. The Childhood of Jesus. (London: Vintage, 2014)