In Horacio Castellanos Moya’s new novel, Erasmo Aragón, a writer in exile from El Salvador, seems to have a good answer to the question of why he is planning on going back to a country that has been fighting an incredibly bloody civil war for 20 years. “Peace,” he says, “could be glimpsed on the not-too-distant horizon.” Also, if he could get healthy, and stop drinking, he might find a girl with a sweet ass, like his wife. Castellanos Moya is a master of creating narrators who say things so wrong you can’t pick out the worst thing in them. But there is one particularly bizarre delusion in this weird equivalence between politics and posteriors fueling our hero’s many crazy capers in The Dream of My Return. The opportunities available after the conclusion of a 20-year civil war -- which was indeed brought to a close in 1992 with a treaty between rebel guerrillas and the national government -- just aren’t the same as the opportunity to “radically change my life,” as Erasmo also grandiloquently puts it. But, as in so many of Moya’s novels, politics is taken so personally that peace can’t be thought of any other way. And so these contradictions don’t stop Erasmo from trying his damnedest to push them to their limits in the turns and returns of his screwy psyche. In fact, his awareness of his bizarre situation only seems to spur him on, and the sheer fun of this novel is in seeing him juggle all this hyperconscious bad faith -- Castellanos Moya all the while continuing to pile it on. To begin with, it doesn’t seem to bother Erasmo that peace actually can be glimpsed in the here and now in Mexico City where he lives, with a job at a paper, a wife and a kid, and friends in the community of refugees. He doesn’t mind that in all likelihood he would be alone in a country that, even today, after the peace, is a corrupt, violent den of gangs and killers. Or rather, he does mind, in fact, he throws fits. But his predilection to see his future in the language of self-help, merely makes him the first to admit he’s a self-deluding idiot, a liar, a cheat, an all-around asshole, so that he can continue chasing his dream. Not to mention leave out (to the reader too, often) anything that might disturb his comfortable culpability. You can imagine how bad this gets when, after seeing a doctor for liver problems, he begins to undergo first steps of therapy. This self-help rhetoric is, of course, not so much the pastime of therapists as of neoliberal North Americans and, since the 1990s, that of many of the reforming governments to the south, too. What Castellanos Moya ruthlessly savages in Erasmo’s use of it is that as much as it talks improvement it remains silent on anything resisting a narrative of change, radical change. There’s a point in the story -- it’s after he finds out his wife is cheating on him and has decided the baby she’s having isn’t his, but before he starts making plans to liquidate the two-bit actor with an ex-guerrilla arms-supplier he drinks Bloody Ceasars with who calls himself The Rabbit -- that Erasmo drives his wife to get an abortion, and laments the whole time how barbaric it is that Mexico hasn’t made the operation legal. The dark, dark joke here is that El Salvador even today continues to have one of the most backwards abortion laws of any country, and it points to what his doctor tells him: “You refuse to remember almost anything.” The words the doctor uses -- conveyed in yet another vivacious translation by Katherine Silver -- are as suggestive about the power of his improving monologue as they are precise about the extent of his blindness: anything can come before his vision of the present and future and be forgotten, perhaps not everything but definitely any one thing. “Only the devil himself knows the pathways taken by our self-esteem,” Erasmo admits, and he’s perhaps more right than he thinks he is. He’s trying to leave his life behind, because he is haunted by a past wholly traumatic. It’s because he is improving that he is digging his own grave -- and, if he had his stupid way, that of others. As in his disturbingly hilarious Senselessness, Castellanos Moya doesn’t deny that this past may have actually been traumatic for Erasmo and for many others who lived through the ugly, brutal civil wars. Erasmo’s is indeed a world of violence, one where parents have been shot, relatives cut to pieces; where the Rabbit uses Erasmo’s truck to stash an arms cache that will make its way down to the rebels; where it really is unclear whether Erasmo’s doctor, himself taking a trip down to San Salvador for a few days for a funeral, may not be calling him back because he’s been disappeared. But Castellanos Moya revels in showing that the untraumatic future, the “peace” of which Erasmo speaks, is actually always and forever just “on the horizon,” always just right around the corner, always just far enough away to make it seem like if we want it enough, want it personally, then it will happen. Freedom from violence and the past isn’t the same thing as freedom from our many individual torments, if only because our lives teach us structural problems can’t be ignored. The political isn’t always personal; reform is reform for other people too. Of course the problem with this is that personally, let alone politically, living and legislating beyond dreams of peace, with the possibility of violence continuing, doesn’t make us any smarter than the people eager for war and continuing violence. As he nears his trip to the airport, Erasmo thinks of a cousin Albertico, who returned to the country during the war in 1980 to fight. When asked why, he responds “because I’m an ass.” The difficult thought for Erasmo, and for us, might be that we may not need any more ass, since we’re all asses already. But then, difficult thoughts aren’t easy to entertain, especially where asses are involved. When he gets to the airport, Erasmo spies a real hottie, a real stunner, a “thoroughbred filly,” and returns to dreaming of “a paradise of sweet asses awaiting me,” as he says, “at my destination.” Castellanos Moya’s own exile began when he wrote, in the voice of a crusty Thomas Bernhard figure in his 1997 novel El Asco, that “returning to San Salvador always seemed the worst nightmare,” and received death threats which forced him out of the country. For this reason, he has long been a sexy figure for North American readers -- who love their Latin American authors sexy, rebellious, engaged with the violence in the region, as he himself recently pointed out about the reception of his friend Roberto Bolaño. But with The Dream of My Return he shows he deserves to be considered one of the most politically instructive of many politically engaged Latin American authors. That he has so explored so many of the problems when a nightmare becomes a mere foolish dream is the true triumph of storytelling over circumstance here, and it is of a kind Erasmo can only dream about.
With no mention of the titular character in it at all, critics have been squirming in their seats, unsure of what to think about the title of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, The Childhood of Jesus. Since its publication in the UK and other English-speaking countries in March, it has become the occasion of many outpourings of critical anxiety. Rare is the occasion when someone like Christopher Tayler in the London Review of Books can feel excited about their confusion; or address it honestly as Leo Robson does in the New Statesman. More common is a scramble to make sense of the thing, like Theo Tait’s ingenious attempt in The Guardian, or the dismissal of its importance in giving the book some other framework for evaluation, as in Justin Cartwright’s otherwise interesting guide to the book for the BBC. And with the publication of the work in the U.S. we can only expect more of the same. The problem isn’t that the title doesn’t describe what’s in the book. It’s the way it doesn’t. It’s too big a title, too grand. It describes a character who, even if he is not literally related to the character in the book -- a boy named David -- works on such a larger scale that it wouldn’t even work figuratively. And so even when we can’t find anything meaningful in it, it is hard to believe that Coetzee didn’t mean it to be there. It seems, in other words, indeed serious, in being a little too serious -- there’s no letup, no obliqueness in it, no irony that is clear and distinguishable. The funny thing about it is that Coetzee may well indeed mean what he says, and to be taken to task for this is rather strange: as if once he seems too serious, critics think he can’t be serious at all. And this shows that however petty their reaction has been, the critics are on to something. We know Coetzee as a postmodern writer, a coy writer, playful, always up to something, or trying to be up to something. What we witness in this book is a change of emphasis towards seriousness, a stylistic change, or experiment in changing, which is remarkable to watch. It’s visible in the straightforwardness of the story itself. The book is about a little boy David and a man old enough to be his grandfather, Simón, arriving in a strange Spanish-speaking land. We don’t know where they are from; we even don’t know their real names, since it was Belstar, the refugee camp where they were, that gave them these. Simón himself, through whose experience we witness most of what happens, doesn’t know anything about the child: details are hazy. “There was a mishap on board the boat during the voyage that might have explained everything,” as Simón puts it. “As a result,” he continues, “his parents are lost, or, more accurately, he is lost.” The rest of the story is simply David developing under Simón's care, as they both attempt to start what they call a “new life” together. After a few failed attempts to find the boy’s father and mother, Simón struggles to get a more permanent home for the boy. An old washed-up romantic, but without the confusing animalistic drives of a David Lurie (the hero/villain of Disgrace), he gets it into his head that what the boy needs is a mother. This can be achieved, he thinks, by simply finding one; Simón seems to assume, rather strangely, that a bond like this can be created just by arrangement. Improbably enough, on a hike one day he finds someone willing to be David’s mother, and delivers the boy up to a woman named Inés. But he still watches the boy from afar, and misses him. He folds himself back into the family, doing chores for them and small tasks, and monitors the care of the child, entwining his destiny more and more with his. There is a strange feeling you can get while reading Coetzee’s work that you merely are hearing a yarn: in other words, that the direct, incredibly precise style is the only thing remarkable about what is simply a straightforward tale. The exact narration of plot borders on bottoming out and becoming the -- exquisite, no doubt -- chronicling of mere events. This feeling was, in Coetzee’s previous work, always countered by the work’s form breaking up, or turning against itself, which would remind you the precision and exactness was slowly working towards a point: that is, that the work was spare for a reason, that the economy plays generously with the things you are hearing about. But here we have no postmodern tricks as in Slow Man or Diary of a Bad Year. No strange intertextual references as in Foe. No metafictional scenes like the close of Elizabeth Costello, wherein a strange set of judges in the afterlife ask the titular character, a world-famous author, if fiction itself is really worth anything at all -- a fiction in which we hear about the meaning of fiction, and in which the status of the fiction we are reading seems to hang in the balance because of what happens within it. Here we simply have Simón befriending a child and believing in him, as it were, so it is no wonder that this feeling of flatness sticks around, and we think Coetzee has decided to stop with all this beating around the bush, with these sidelong ways of probing the depth of his characters. There are a few tricks still up his sleeve, however. First and foremost there is the pace at which the tale is told, in another instance of that narrative economy which Coetzee has so perfected and which would make anything he writes engrossing. Then, more importantly there is the boy himself. He is, simply, fascinating. Especially in his conceptions and ideas of the world, which Coetzee relates sympathetically and which Simón can’t stop listening to. This despite their childishness, all their petulance and profundity, all their (in a word) contrariness. “Why do I have to speak Spanish all the time?” David asks Simón once. Simón patiently explains: “We have to speak some language, my boy, unless we want to bark and howl like animals. And if we are going to speak some language, it is best we all speak the same one. Isn’t that reasonable?” “But why Spanish? I hate Spanish.” “You don’t hate Spanish. You speak very good Spanish. Your Spanish is better than mine. You are just being contrary. What language do you want to speak?” “I want to speak my own language.” “There is no such thing as one’s own language” “There is! La la fa fa yam ying tu tu.” Coetzee has David shout things like this often, in the way children do sometimes, where they have been thinking of something by themselves for an hour or so, playing out some internal fantasy of some sort, and suddenly inform you about it as if it was real, and as if it made sense to everyone and was obvious. It happens as David learns to read and talks about Don Quixote as if he were real, as he learns math and talks about numbers as if they had strange properties, as he talks about other people, and their strange characteristics or powers, and in so many other occasions in the novel. And while these fantasies are contrary and counterfactual, they compel. After hearing the boy’s own language, Simón objects: “That’s just gibberish. It doesn’t mean anything.” “It does mean something. It means something to me.” “That may be so but it doesn’t mean anything to me. Language has to mean something to me as well as to you, otherwise it doesn’t count as language.” In a gesture that he must have picked up from Inés, the boy tosses his head dismissively. “La la fa fa yam ying! Look at me!” He looks into the boy’s eyes. For the briefest of moments he sees something there. He has no name for it. It is like -- that is what occurs to him in the moment. Like a fish that wriggles loose as you try to grasp it. But not like a fish -- no, like like a fish. Or like like like a fish. On and on. Then the moment is over, and he is simply standing in silence, staring. “Did you see?” says the boy. The key thing about this moment, and about other similar moments, is that Simón did not see, or saw only for a second. But that this reserved and fiercely independent man can so thoroughly commit himself to trying to see, or, at the very least, can so thoroughly commit himself to seeing what it would be like to see, or, at the very very least, can so thoroughly commit himself to seeing what it would be like to see what it would be like to see...this shows Coetzee’s child here is much more than someone relating the wisdom that comes out of the mouths of babes -- even perhaps the mouth of a baby Jesus. David is the vehicle for Coetzee’s effort to explore belief’s ability to conquer doubt -- more particularly, the doubt of Simón -- and of the way fantasies can coax even doubt itself into becoming a form of trust, of faith, of belief. And as David’s fantasies increasingly disrupt the class in school, and the school threatens, eventually, to kick the boy out and put him in a disciplinary facility for children, Simón has to take this commitment even further, and consider whether he will follow the boy and run off again, away from the authorities, to somewhere else, another new life, or try and stick it out in the town and educate him out of his fictions. For critics, the biggest problem with Coetzee in his early career was the way his style failed to engage with serious, real-world problems. As critics complained, he lived and wrote in South Africa in the midst of one of the worst crises of the century. Where, in the interesting fables he then fabricated, was anything of the brutal situation around him? Postmodern authors were addressing politics even as they wove interesting tales: Yet Coetzee worked in a sort of neo-Modern arid and ironic style implying that art needed to concentrate on things more ambiguous, sometimes concentrating on colonialism through allegory, representing the colonizers as much as the colonized. He was being contrary, in many ways. Yet by now Coetzee has published much dealing with animal rights, among other things, and Disgrace dealt directly and provocatively with South African issues. What seemed lacking in the purity of his representations of life has been filled up with a closer and more interesting relationship with the world around us. In the recent edition of his correspondence with Paul Auster, Here and Now, we even find him grumbling about the financial crisis. In this respect, the dust jacket’s claim that The Childhood of Jesus is “allegorical” is misleading, a throwback to an earlier contrarian mood. For now we seem to find Coetzee dealing with a problem different in character: a question about the internal, rather than the external, limits of his work, the limitations of his own style. It is a question of how far irony, self-consciousness, coyness, evasiveness, whimsy, reserve, and simple but efficient avoidance of the commonplace and real, can indeed address the opposite: sincerity, seriousness, truth-telling. While the world can be represented, can it only be played with? Can’t things be believed in? The Childhood of Jesus reminds us again how baffling Coetzee can be, but also that he can be tender, can have, as Frank Kermode once put it, “reserves of feeling that are tragic or even religious.” These are moments where he pretty clearly reminds us that no, we can believe in things, and we do even as we doubt. Play and seriousness have a way of communing together sometimes, with childlike simplicity.