David is five. He has lost the note which accompanied him on the ship, and falls into the guardianship of Simón, who takes it upon himself to find the boy's mother. David is precocious, imaginative and isolated. He is convinced of his special abilities, yet numbers fall apart around him and he can't understand why Simón can't answer his questions; Why must we speak Spanish? What is value? What if they bury him, and he isn't dead?
Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, unravels a strange and empty tale of resettlement and the search for a place to be in his most recent book The Childhood of Jesus. His protagonists, disparate strangers brought together by the young boy, are confusingly one-dimensional for an author of such talent, but the narrative is beautifully written. It follows David and Simón, and their companions, as they struggle to find a place in a new landscape and to define the relationships they have with others.
Interesting questions emerge through the actions and conversations of Coetzee's characters. I particularly enjoyed the dialogues of the dock-workers on the value of their labour and the promotion of the idea of respectable employment. I'm not sure where I stand on other ideas that emerge though, such as Simón's quest for passion and Elena's complacent pronunciation that goodwill is enough. However, agree or not, the sparse setting of the novel does throw up many philosophical questions that make the journey of these strange characters universally relevant.
Given the title of the book, and some mentions of fish, of names, and of anonymous water-borne journeys, I feel I need to re-read this book in order to better grasp the biblical allusions. Or, perhaps, like Simón, I am persistently looking for something more that is not there.
I would recommend this book to anyone with a curious mind and a love of literature. It is certainly no adventure story; the pace is slow, threads are left hanging, and expected twists never come. It is, however, a beautifully written book about childhood, destiny and change.