When J.M. Coetzee published The Childhood of Jesus in 2013, critics received it with respectful bafflement. The book tells the story of a man named Simón, who arrives in the Spanish-speaking city of Novilla in the company of a young boy named David. Together, they must navigate the strange place in which they find themselves—a theoretically perfect society in which everyone is fed, housed, and has a job, as in the socialist millennium, but where the food is unappetizing, the housing meager and unattractive, and the work harsh and tiring. Soon it becomes clear that Novilla is situated in some kind of afterlife, where souls are reborn stripped of their earthly memories and desires.
Clearly, critics deduced, The Childhood of Jesus was allegory—but for what? Writing in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates observed that it was “a Kafka-inspired parable of the quest for meaning itself.” In The Guardian, Benjamin Markovits put it more bluntly: The novel was “an elaborate rope trick.” In particular, reviewers had a hard time connecting Coetzee’s story with the novel’s title, since Jesus Christ is not a character in the book or even mentioned in it. “None of the characters,” Jason Farago observed in the New Republic, even appeared to be “especially Christian.”
Neither parable nor difficulty, of course, is new for Coetzee. In his 1980 novel Waiting for the Barbarians, he set his tale outside any recognizable history, in the outpost of a nameless empire that could be Roman or British, ancient or modern. In Life & Times of Michael K, he sent his protagonist on a Kafkaesque journey through a dream version of South Africa. And in Slow Man, he tore open what begins as a conventional novel by introducing the novelist Elizabeth Costello as his alter ego, allowing him to exist in the book as creator and creation at once. Even more than its allegorical riddles, however, what makes The Childhood of Jesus a characteristic Coetzee novel is its plain style and its atmosphere of intense moral seriousness—what might be called his essential Protestantism.
Coetzee’s Protestantism is a matter of lineage and culture: He’s a descendant of the Dutch Reformed settlers in South Africa who became the Afrikaners. But it is also, he makes clear in his memoirs, a matter of personality and sensibility. In Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life, Coetzee writes about the moment when he was asked to declare his religion at school. Rather than call himself a Christian—that is, a Protestant, like most of the boys—he claimed to be a Catholic, even though he barely understood what Catholicism was. Even at a young age, Coetzee intuited that to declare oneself a Catholic in a Protestant culture was a form of protest—as was choosing to side with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when everyone around him was pro-American.
What Coetzee faced was the problem of how to dissent from a religious culture that itself was founded on an act of dissent. One can follow in the tradition of Martin Luther and John Calvin by joining one of the churches they founded—but to truly emulate the Protestant rebels, one might also have to rebel against them in turn. This dynamic lies at the heart of modern Protestant theology, which tries again and again to find Christ by breaking with established Christianity; and it also lies at the center of Coetzee’s work, and never more so than in The Childhood of Jesus and its sequel, The Schooldays of Jesus.