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.”

* * *

In Novilla (“no town”), people arrive as tabula rasas and learn to get by in a world where, it seems, there is a sufficient reason for everything. Simón’s job consists of unloading sacks of grain from a ship’s hold onto a wharf, sacks that are then loaded onto horse carts. It is a pastoral scene, straight out of a Renaissance painting, but Simon can’t help but wonder: “Why do they not use a crane?” Because, the foreman Álvaro explains, there is no reason to do the work more quickly, and there is no emergency, such as a food shortage. Efficiency for efficiency’s sake is not a guiding principle in Novilla.

On the weekend, Simón takes David to see a football game and discovers, much to his surprise, that the event is free. The buses that cross the city are free, too, and so are the classes, lectures, films and discussion groups at a place called the Institute, where everyone is welcome. There are no temples of any kind and no mention of clerics or religion. If any of the workers gets sick, he can see a doctor free of charge. Simón is a little baffled by it all:

Everyone I meet is so decent, so kindly, so well-intentioned. No one swears or gets angry. No one gets drunk. No one even raises his voice. You live on a diet of bread and water and bean paste and you claim to be filled. How can that be, humanly speaking? Are you lying, even to yourselves?

But no one else in Novilla appears to be the least bit uncomfortable with this state of affairs. There is good, honest work to do, little trouble to get into, and plenty of entertainment and education for those who are interested. “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” Simón observes drily, echoing Candide’s witless mentor, Pangloss.

So The Childhood of Jesus invites you to imagine a place where all of your needs are met. When you work, you get paid a living wage. When you are hungry, there is food. When you are bored, there is a game. When you want to learn, there are classes. There is no crime, only benevolence. What then? Would that be enough for your fulfillment? For Simón, the answer is no. He can’t help but desire more. He longs for more substantial meals, for instance, both for David and for himself.

“You don’t know where I can buy meat, do you, without making a trip to the city centre?”
   Álvaro scratches his head. “Not around here, not around the docklands. There are people who catch rats, I have heard tell. There is no shortage of rats. But for that you will need a trap, and I don’t know offhand where you would lay your hands on a good rat trap. You would probably have to make it yourself. You could use wire, with some kind of trip mechanism.”
  “Yes. Haven’t you seen them? Wherever there are ships there are rats.”
  “But who eats rats? Do you eat rats?”
  “No, I wouldn’t dream of it. But you asked where you could get meat, and that is all I can suggest.”
  He stares long into Álvaro’s eyes. He can see no sign that he is joking. Or if it is a joke, it is a very deep joke.

In this Coetzeean utopia, not only are the workers unionized, but nearly everyone is a vegetarian. One side effect of all this kindness and benevolence, however, is that there is no mischief, no irony or sarcasm, no playfulness—not even in fiction. When David asks who wrote Don Quixote, Simón replies, “A man named Benengeli.” It is as if Cervantes’s witty prologue had been stripped out of the novel and, with it, the metafictional nature of the book. Who wants to live in a world where Don Quixote is missing its game of mirrors? Idle reader: I don’t have to swear any oaths to persuade you that I should not like it.

Similarly, the courses at the Institute are varied, but there are no languages on offer except Spanish. There is no possibility to learn other idioms, no room for translation or mistranslation, no exposure to other societies. As for the philosophy lectures, they quickly degenerate into discussions of the chairness of chairs, which Coetzee sends up in a later chapter as “the pooness of poo,” a deadpan parody of academic quibbling. Coetzee is often criticized for his unrelenting seriousness, but these passages are perhaps some of the funniest he has ever written.

There is one course, though, that interests Simón: the life drawing class where Ana, a clerk from the resettlement center, poses nude. Unfortunately for him, all the class sections are full. Simón is attracted to Ana, but she rebuffs him. “The more beautiful you find me, the more urgent becomes your appetite…. What is the connection between the one and the other?” she asks. Sex is completely absurd to her: “You want to grip me tight and push part of your body into me…. I am baffled.” In Novilla, then, one must give up not only one’s history and language, but also one’s sexual desire. Eventually, Simón begins a sexual relationship with his neighbor Elena, but it quickly becomes clear that she does it out of pity, not out of passion.

As time passes, Simón gets accustomed to the blandness of the food, the simplicity of the life, the scarce and dispassionate sex. He becomes consumed only with protecting David. Since he is not the boy’s father, Simón acts as a surrogate, though everywhere he goes, he has to explain his unusual relationship—just as, one imagines, Joseph had do to with the child Jesus. “Not my grandson, not my son,” Simón says, “but I am responsible for him.” “I am not David’s father, nor am I his padrino.” “I am not his father. I look after him. I am a guardian of sorts.”

When Simón announces to Inés that David is her son, she is befuddled. “Are you suggesting that I adopt your boy?” she asks. “Not adopt,” Simón replies. “Be his mother, his full mother. We have only one mother, each of us. Will you be that one and only mother to him?” After some hesitation Inés agrees, and her faith in the idea that she is the child’s full mother is absolute.

As for David, he has some difficulty with formal instruction, but he is gifted in other ways: he is unbeatable at chess and can memorize lines from a Goethe poem with little effort. When his teacher asks him to write “Conviene que yo diga la verdad” (I must tell the truth), he writes “Yo soy la verdad” (I am the truth). So what does David, this child Jesus, have to teach those around him? “You must never fight,” he says solemnly. “Protecting yourself isn’t fighting,” Simón counters. To explain this, he pretends to slap David, but the boy willingly presents his cheek. By the end of the novel, Simón and Inés’s devotion to the child is so complete that they are willing to break the law to keep him satisfied.

* * *

It is difficult to resist an allegorical reading of The Childhood of Jesus, because of its title as well as its author. Coetzee has been associated with this representative mode ever since the publication, in 1980, of Waiting for the Barbarians, his third and perhaps most famous novel. In it, a magistrate in a far-flung outpost of an unnamed empire dares to question the decisions of a colonel who has been sent to put down a barbarian rebellion. The magistrate’s questions grow more persistent and eventually turn into a direct challenge; for this, he is imprisoned and tortured, like the barbarians. The experience makes him reassess everything he has believed about how the empire conducts itself, or should conduct itself:

My torturers were not interested in degrees of pain. They were interested only in demonstrating to me what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well, which very soon forgets them when its head is gripped and a pipe is pushed down its gullet and pints of salt water are poured into it till it coughs and retches and flails and voids itself…. So I had no chance to throw the high-sounding words I had ready in their faces.

Many critics saw in Waiting for the Barbarians a searing indictment of the apartheid regime in South Africa, but the novel could just as easily be interpreted as a sober assessment of the Roman Empire or sixteenth-century Spanish conquest or twentieth-century American expansionism. “One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire,” Coetzee writes: “how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.” The genius of the book is that it captures essential traits of every colonial era: the power of its military, the silence of its intellectual elite, the turning of its subjects into barbarian Others, the acceptance (and even the celebration) of torture.

The same interpretive lens was applied to Life & Times of Michael K (1983), in which a hare-lipped gardener takes his ailing mother away from a Cape Town ravaged by civil war to a farm in the Karoo, where she was born. She dies along the way, but he continues his journey to the farm, where he buries her ashes. He tries to make a life for himself there until the police arrive, accuse him of being part of a guerrilla force and torture him for information. Michael K’s experiences, specific and individual though they are, came to be seen as representative of the black experience in South Africa in the 1980s.

Coetzee neither encouraged nor discouraged such readings; he remained silent and resisted any attempts to interpret his work for audiences. (This is a stance I admire and wish other novelists would emulate.) When Life & Times of Michael K won the Booker Prize, Coetzee did not go to the ceremony. Nor did he go in 1999, when Disgrace won. It was his most realistic novel to date, but here too readers searched for allegorical representations. In Disgrace, David Lurie, a (white) professor of English, loses his job after he forces himself on a female student. Lurie does not see his actions as assault. “Not rape,” he tells himself, “not quite that, but undesired nevertheless, undesired to the core.” He retires to his daughter Lucy’s farm in the Eastern Cape, with the intent of writing a libretto for an opera about Byron. Then three (black) men attack the farm; they lock Lurie up in a bathroom and rape his daughter.

Some critics, including Nadine Gordimer, saw in Disgrace a simplistic portrayal of black characters; others decried the “pessimistic” view it offered of the new South Africa. (The novel was published only five years after the end of apartheid.) The African National Congress took the unusual step of excoriating the author for representing, “as brutally as he can, the white people’s perception of the post-apartheid black man.” But Coetzee was writing from the perspective of an old white man set in his ways—precisely the kind of man who would have difficulty adapting to the post-apartheid era.

In the beginning, Lurie does not notice that his views of women are retrograde (“A woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone…. She has a duty to share it”) or that his relationship with his undergraduate student is objectionable. He flatly refuses to apologize when he is brought before an academic panel investigating sexual impropriety. Only later, after his daughter’s rape on the farm, does his self-deception begin to dissipate. To his former student’s family, he offers this: “I am sorry…. I ask for your pardon.” He drops to his knees and touches his forehead to the ground.

* * *

After Disgrace, Coetzee steered away from parables and began to experiment with form. In Elizabeth Costello, published in 2003, an Australian novelist is invited to give lectures at African, European and American universities. In the past, Costello has enjoyed great literary success—in fact, she bears a striking resemblance to Coetzee himself—and now she is brought out before audiences like “an old, tired circus seal,” to accept awards or to speak on subjects of her choosing: freedom of speech and literature, for instance, though her most passionate lectures are on animal rights. Costello is horrified by the slaughter of millions of animals every day, which she compares to the Holocaust.

Because these claims are presented in a lecture wrapped inside a fictional story, Coetzee was spared any of the accusations that might be made, and indeed are made, against Costello: that her comparison between animal slaughter and the Holocaust is offensive, that she minimizes the suffering of millions of people, that she is more concerned with the suffering of animals than of her fellow humans. The use of another writer’s voice allowed him to explore the idea of the human consumption of other animals to its bitter conclusion, even if that conclusion was offensive, and even if it was not one he himself has ever publicly espoused.

Four years later, Coetzee published another experimental novel, Diary of a Bad Year, in which each page gives us three different voices: the first is an essay by a writer named Señor C, the second is his diary, and the third is Anya’s, his typist. Like Coetzee, Señor C is a South African–born novelist now living in Australia. “If I were pressed to give my brand of political thought a label,” Señor C writes, it would be anarchism, quietism and pessimism: “Anarchism because experience tells me that what is wrong with politics is power itself; quietism because I have my doubts about the will to set about changing the world, a will infected with the drive to power; and pessimism because I am skeptical that, in a fundamental way, things can be changed.”

It might be tempting to draw biographical inferences here, but Coetzee is not nearly as despairing as his characters. He regularly adds his voice to campaigns on behalf of human rights, whether for the release of political prisoners like Liu Xiaobo, or for freedom of the press in South Africa, or for the inclusion of books and literature in disaster relief efforts. Recently, he called on the Spanish government to abandon its plans to protect bullfighting as part of its national heritage. This doesn’t sound like quietism to me.

Whatever the mode, one uniting thread in Coetzee’s work is a calling into question of power in all its forms. In Waiting for the Barbarians, he examined the power of an empire against its subjects in the colonies; in Life & Times of Michael K, the power of the state against the simplest and meekest of its citizens; in Disgrace, the power of academics over students and men over women; in Elizabeth Costello, the power of human beings over animals. Is it possible, Coetzee asks again and again, for someone to have power without abusing it? What happens if we consider the world through the perspective of the powerless? And what happens when someone who has long benefited from a particular advantage is suddenly stripped of it?

In the new novel, he has approached this idea from an entirely different perspective, creating a place where there is no power and no hierarchy of any kind. No individual in Novilla can claim to be special or different: no one is richer, no one is smarter, no one is more powerful. Will Simón and Inés, these people who have been “washed clean” of the past, stop looking for greatness in someone?

It is a fascinating premise, though not a particularly dramatic one. Coetzee is known for his spare prose, which highlights beautifully all the excesses of power about which he writes so often and so intensely. But in this new novel, his brief, clinically precise sentences only draw more attention to the tediousness of a peaceful, but inefficient, vegetarian and sexless world. Still, his great talent has always been to make the reader (or this reader, at least) feel as though he is writing for her alone, challenging her to ask herself the same questions he puts to his characters.

After a mishap at work, a mishap caused by his own desire for more efficiency, Simón is taken to the hospital for a few days. His spirits are low, and he complains to a co-worker: “Something is missing, Eugenio. I know it should not be so, but it is. The life I have is not enough for me. I wish someone, some saviour, would descend from the skies and wave a magic wand and say, Behold, read this book and all your questions will be answered.”

There is, of course, no such book in Novilla. In this best of all possible worlds, there are answers for everything, except for the most important of questions. Still, that doesn’t stop Simón from looking. Even in a society where no one is marked for greatness, Coetzee suggests, we would seek out someone greater than us—a savior. Perhaps we would find that greatness in a child and, before long, endow it with dominion over us and indulge all its desires, whether noble or not so noble. Imagine that.