In 1516, when he was a councilor to Henry VIII, Thomas More published a slim novel in which he described a society starkly different from his own, a place where education is universal, religious diversity is tolerated, and private property is banned. Citizens elect their prince and can unseat him if he turns tyrannical. The state provides free healthcare for everyone, and the law is so simple that there are no lawyers. For this ideal society, More coined the term Utopia (“no place” in Greek). It sounds enlightened, doesn’t it? But here is the fine print: in Utopia, each household has two slaves, drawn from among criminals or foreign prisoners of war; the prince is always a man; atheism is frowned upon; and women and children have far fewer rights than men.
Still, what enchants about Utopia is More’s dream of an ideal society, a dream shared by poets and prophets, artists and thinkers throughout the ages. In The Republic, Plato wanted the ideal city to be run by philosopher-kings. In Candide, Voltaire situated the perfect society in El Dorado, where there are schools aplenty but no prisons. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels theorized that the future would belong to workers once they had lost their chains. Every era has its utopia. Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try.
The great J.M. Coetzee follows in this tradition in his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, which explores the enduring question of what a just and compassionate world might look like. Over a career that has spanned forty years, the South African novelist (now an Australian citizen) has given us novels that explore the ethical responsibilities of the individual. How a person copes with power—whether political, physical or sexual—is a concern that runs through all his work. His characters often find themselves thrust into situations that force them to take note of, and act against, an injustice they had previously declined to notice. His latest novel offers a new variation on these themes: it focuses not on the drama of an unjust yet ordinary situation, but on an unusual just one.
The Childhood of Jesus begins with a man and a child arriving at a resettlement center. Though they are not related, they have grown close on the ship that brought them across the ocean. They have no memories of their lives in the old country, no recollections of their homes and families, no awareness of the circumstances that caused them to become refugees, no fluency in a native tongue. Mysteriously, they have been “washed clean” of the past. Even their names are new: the man is Simón, the child is David. Now they communicate in Spanish, which was taught to them for six weeks at a transit camp called Belstar, and which is spoken in this city, Novilla.
With the help of the resettlement center, Simón gets a job as a stevedore and a small but comfortable apartment. Then he tries to locate David’s mother, who is also a refugee in Novilla. The boy was separated from her, and the letter that explains his situation—a letter he carried in a pouch strung around his neck—has been lost. David is only 5 and doesn’t know his mother’s first name; nor does he have a picture of her. So the task is arduous, but Simón is still convinced that he can find her, that he will recognize David’s mother the moment he sees her.
During an excursion to the countryside, Simón sees a young woman playing tennis with her brothers, and “something stirs inside him.” Suddenly, that feeling of recognition settles over him. He begs the woman, Inés, to take David as her “son.” Eventually she agrees, and Simón retreats into the role of “a servant and a helper.” But how can Simón give the child to a complete stranger, his neighbor Elena asks; how can he entrust David to someone who might have a questionable past? “None of us has a past,” Simón replies. “We start anew here. We start with a blank slate, a virgin slate.”