A few days past, I stepped into my town’s city council chambers to a sea of “Make America Great Again” hats and signs against “illegal aliens.” The council was meeting to decide whether the city would, in a largely symbolic gesture, oppose the idea of the Sanctuary City bill and sign onto the amicus brief suing the state.
One after one after one, men and women stood at the podium facing the council, donning red hats, draped in American flags, and snarled abuses about criminality and violence, about illegal aliens and rapists—the same vitriolic language espoused by the president. Those in favor of the bill were outnumbered, and a gentleman in the seat next to me would regularly turn to my mother and I to record our reactions to the vitriol—my mother, being a hijabi, was an easy target. If eyes are the window into the soul, and racism is a malignancy within it, those windows showed very clearly what was in front of us; I refuse to believe that the council members did not see it. As the night wore on, one line kept returning to me from Terrance Hayes, sitting at the edge of my tongue, that I wanted to yell: “May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust.” It sat in my mouth, and I wished I could let it fly.
In a section of The Diary of a Bad Year called “On the Curse,” J.M. Coetzee meditates on how the fear of a curse is very integral to American literature, becoming in fact the central theme of Faulkner: “The theft of land from the Indians or the rape of slave women comes back in unforeseen form, generations later, to haunt the oppressor.” This idea of a curse, a uniquely American curse, is an anxiety reflected even earlier in Nathaniel Hawthorne:
I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent and ask pardon of heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer as their representative hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back would argue to exist—may now be henceforth removed.
Even from D.H. Lawrence: “One day the demons of America must be placated, the ghosts must be appeased, the spirit of place atoned for. Then the true passionate love for American soil will appear. As yet, there is too much menace in the landscape.” A question: the ghosts of whom?
By this point, it may be redundant to claim that the idea of an American curse is integrally bound up with race, with the machinery of its violence, and the way it occurs in any contemplation of whiteness. Now read:
America, you just wanted change is all, a return
To the kind of awe experienced after beholding a reign
Of gold. A leader whose metallic narcissism is a reflection
Of your own. You share a fantasy with Trinidad
James, who said, “Gold all in my chain, gold all in my ring,
Gold all in my watch” & if you know what I’m talking
About, your gold is the yellow of “Lemonade” by Gucci
Mane: “Yellow rims, yellow big booty, yellow bones,
Yellow Lambs, yellow MP’s, yellow watch.” Like no
Culture before us, we relate the way the descendants
Of the raped relate to the descendants of their rapists.
May your restlessness come at last to rest, constituents
Of Midas. I wish you the opposite of what Neruda said
Of lemons. May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust.
Terrance Hayes, recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award, the National Book Award, and a litany of other prizes, is one of the most gifted poets working in our language. His new book, a short volume of sonnets, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, is a gift in a fraught moment. These sonnets, existential, political, personal, retain a moral ferocity and urgency that propels that entire cycle forward.
These are not Shakespearean or Spenserian sonnets, but what ought to be called Colemanian sonnets after Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman, whose improvisational free jazz approach to sonnets is the starting point for these poems. Hayes builds upon this conceptual framework for an idea of an “American Sonnet.” Absurd, pun-filled, shocking and ironic, there is a freedom in these poems that comes marching forward in the same way Coleman’s poems still measure toward a common formal language. Hayes’ voice is level, and his penchant for formal experimentation—which led him to creating his own formal conventions in Lighthead and Hip Logic (such as the Pecha Kucha)—find him immediately at home. What I am trying to say is that if poems are a house, and sonnets are gothic architecture, then Terrance Hayes is our Antoni Gaudí.
However, more than an architect, Hayes is an alchemist whose poems can turn gold into copper or a house into a prison:
I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison,
Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.
I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat
Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone.
I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold
While your better selves watch from the bleachers.
I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow
You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night
In the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow
Shit dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars
Falling from the pep rally posters on your walls.
I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart.
Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough
To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed
These poems are acutely aware of the literary tradition Hayes works in, with as many references to James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, to Derek Walcott and Langston Hughes, wrestling with the implications of blackness and literary tradition. Hayes’ inhabits the deeply troubling historical moment. But these poems are timeless, by which I mean these sonnets annihilate any difference between past and future.
A motif that appears regularly in these poems is the term, “There never was a black male hysteria.” He explains in his notes, “Many years ago the poet Anthony Butts told me he was writing a book called Male Hysteria…alas, the book never came to be.” In a book unwritten, there is neither future nor past—only the possibilities of both. These poems puncture a hole in time, fragmenting a grief, a rage, a rebellion, an irony so deep that one can only call them blue. These poems are true; they were true before they were written and will be true in whatever future we are slouching toward.
Sitting in those council chambers, in front of this racism unmasked and parading as political theater, those lines sat on my tongue, and I wish—oh, how deeply I wish—I could have turned and said to each and every one of them, “May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust.” I got home quite late that night but pored over these sonnets again and again, as if they were gospel.
Teju Cole is a novelist, essayist, photographer, art history teacher, and Twitter aphorist. He approaches each of these roles as an amateur. This is a compliment. He is not trying to master any particular form as much as he is trying to work inside each with the curiosity of a young craftsman.
Open City, his first book to appear in the U.S., chronicled the wanderings of Julius, a Nigerian psychology student living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Julius filters ideas one usually encounters in a graduate school seminar through his own precise diction, as he describes the problems that theory often fails to confront. A Japanese-American professor, his mentor, remembers the internment camps of his childhood but sidesteps the subject of his homosexuality until the very end of his life. On a trip to Europe, he encounters anti-Semitic Muslims who harbor a justified paranoia of American power. And finally he finds himself caught within the tentacles of rape culture.
Every Day Is for the Thief, a work of fiction about a man returning home to Lagos from America, was first published in Nigeria in 2007 and is now making its first appearance in the U.S. Cole’s narrator studies Nigeria’s kleptocratic culture with a melancholy eye and considers the constant threat of violence and poverty in one of the 21st century’s megacities. The new edition includes pictures of street scenes Cole took many years after first writing the book. His prose guided but did not dictate the subject matter of his un-posed photographs.
I met Cole in Seattle on March 26. He had a full schedule for his book tour and he wanted to see the central building of Seattle’s Public Library system, a beautiful Rem Koolhaas structure located in the city’s downtown. We got to the lookout point where his reliable 40-year-old Leica M4 busted. He spent most of the hour of our interview trying to fix it. We spent a good portion of our time together standing by the elevators at the top of the building. We went downstairs to the library café for about 20 minutes and then we returned back upstairs. The following is a condensed version of our conversation.
The Millions: You maintain an essayistic voice in both your novels. You have more freedom with that essayistic voice in a novel than you would in an essay, because you are not as responsible for the ideas that are presented.
Teju Cole: I think that’s right. It becomes a way of exploring other ways that things could be, other thoughts that you might have. The master of this is Coetzee.
TM: You are talking about Elizabeth Costello.
[On the camera.] I’m having such a day with this. Why?
And I think that’s interesting, because it actually allows us to confront those ideas in a way that if someone gave a talk about them from their own reasonable or defensive point of view it would not be as provocative or would not get as far with it. Don’t you agree?
TM: I don’t know if I do. With an essay, you are putting much more on the line by saying, “This is what I’m saying. This is who I am.” When you put those ideas in a character, it’s an act of ventriloquism.
TC: Precisely. But you never know [whether the character or the author is speaking.] And because you don’t know which that sets up an interesting tension between the reader, the author, and the narrator or the leading character. Personally, I find it very intriguing.
TM: Well, it may be one of the reasons why Proust lives on. We read these thoughts filtered through a narrator who is not Proust.
TC: But who may be close enough to being Proust that we’re not sure. And I’m especially interested in those characters who advance ideas that I would find less attractive or a bit less friendly.
[Fiddling with the camera.] I’m sorry. I’m not distracted, but I’m being mechanical and I’m listening to you.
TM: You had a line at the beginning of your essay “The White Savior Industrial Complex” that a good novel does not have a point. How does that apply to the essay as it compares to the novel?
TC: That’s an interesting example to bring up. Because it’s probably my best-known essay, but it’s definitely not my best essay, and I think you know that. It’s an essay that is definitely meant to have a point. It is actually an activist essay. I’ve done long non-fiction narratives that contain ideas in them that I like as much as anything I’ve done that is fictional…Yes, an essay still has a point. It’s also exploratory, but fiction is more exploratory. And the analogy I would give is of people who take a picture of something like that yellow sign over there. [points to sign describing rules of library etiquette.] They say, “This is the frame,” and you take a picture of the object. But what I strive for both in fiction, but also in the best non-fiction that I try to write, is to actually take a photo of a situation rather than an object.
So, if I take a picture of this right now, [points to view of street down below from the perspective of the lookout point] there’s no object I’m taking a picture of. I’m taking a picture of the light on the glass, the vehicles down there, the zebra crossings, how they interact with these crossings over here [points to the railings and the diagonal frames on the windows.] That complexity is the subject as opposed to taking a picture of an object.
I think an essay might do that. I’m interested in how one might break the essay and do new things to it. So, in that particular essay, I made this assertion. An essay has a point and a novel does not. Well, that particular essay had a point, but many essays actually do not. However, I stand by that essay. I thought that essay was necessary. Absolutely. I 100 percent stand by it.
TM: I found Every Day Is for the Thief incredibly depressing.
TC: Could I tell you that many Nigerians thought it was hilarious?
TM: Well, that’s my question. I thought that if Naipaul had written some of those scenes, I would have been laughing.
TC: Interesting. Why?
TM: Well, he wouldn’t talk about the terrible pressures that the environment created.
TC: He would distance it and he would not bring in the personalized pathos of these people’s lives.
TM: You are writing about this kleptocratic culture.
TC: And I try to bring across the hurt of it as well.
TM: Yes, and the constant pressure, the feeling of betrayal over and over again, the inability to have a fellow feeling with the person you see walking down the street.
TC: Right. Right.
TM: Now, when Naipaul writes about it…
TC: He’s straightforward and brutal about it. He’s like, “I don’t give a shit about these people. I’m going to tell you how ridiculous they are.” And he can also be quite funny about it. I find it quite painful to read him when it comes to this stuff.
TM: But I didn’t laugh when I was reading your book.
TC: Except if you were Nigerian you would laugh, because that’s the only thing you could do. That was a very pleasant surprise for me when the book came out in Nigeria, that people really did find it hilarious.
TM: You did not intend it to be that way.
TC: Not so much, because I’m also writing with the sad distance of somebody who doesn’t live there anymore.
[Fidgeting with the camera.] It’s a comic sequence. This has never happened to me before. It takes me one minute to change some film. I’ve struggled with it and I’ve made certain things loose and now it’s not working. It’s not loving me back.
TM: Open City was mostly just as fragmented as Every Day Is for the Thief. You didn’t have a sense of an arc until the last 50 pages or so.
TC: There’s a way in which Open City…is actually a more conventional novel. I don’t call Every Day Is for the Thief a novel. I call it a work of fiction, or when pressed I’ll say it is a novella. So Open City is more novelistic. It does have these instances of continuous drama that have been foreshadowed and all of that interweaving. So there’s a certain sophistication to the way that it is all working together.
What I’m experiencing now that Every Day is for the Thief is being reviewed [are] the normal ways people talk about a person’s earlier work, not that Open City is [earlier]…just [how they talk about] other work that they know. Quite amazingly, almost uniformly, they all like Open City. So this is the benefit of the distance of time. “If all you motherfuckers had shown up when it came out!” It’s now this settled thing that Open City is a good thing…But as the author I know there was a lot of hemming and hawing about that book when it came out. “Oh nothing happens. Or the stuff that happens at the end is not resolved.”
TM: The second to last chapter is what made that novel work for me.
TC: There was a lovely review in The Times by Miguel Syjuco, a really, really positive review, and he thought that the end was an amateur move.
TM: To me Julius was the intellectual 30-something version of a likable narrator in a young adult novel.
TC: Absolutely. Absolutely. The Catcher in the Rye is one of the not-often-noticed shadows of this book.
TM: He’s an interesting person for you to listen to, and you like his observations. But he is capable of committing something so heinous.
TC: And that exactly is the point.
TM: That might be the best defense for the essay in the novel form. I guess it’s similar to what Coetzee does in Elizabeth Costello.
TC: Which, by the way, was panned.
TM: Well, there’s something of a consensus that since he’s moved to Australia he’s not as good.
TC: That’s right. I think that’s a bullshit consensus. He’s making it work. He can’t just sit back and relax on what has worked. That’s not how he got to where he is. He found out how far he could go with conventional forms. Now he has to interrogate those forms, and go farther and farther with them. It’s hard to part ways with an audience that would like to keep liking you in the ways they’ve always liked you. But that’s the way creativity is. That’s why late work is so puzzling.
Every Day Is for the Thief had been widely read in Nigeria. When Open City came out it was met with quite a bit of excitement there and almost total puzzlement. Like, “It’s too bad, he lost it. He had a good thing going there.”
I’m sorry to make you stand.
[On the camera] I’ve brought it all the way across this continent. And I’ll be damned if I can’t use it. And I can see the damn thing. I can see this picture and not being able to take this damn thing. The light’s been changing the whole time we’ve been here. It’s driving me nuts. This is not what I’m here for. This is nonsense.
[Takes a picture with his smartphone.]
To me it’s an interesting image.
This is my friend, this machine. I love it very much and now I’m a little bit worried.
[We go downstairs to the café where he continues to toy with his camera.]
TM: In this work of fiction, Every Day Is for the Thief, you are describing objects that were never there. So when I read this work of fiction and see these photographs, suggesting you are taking pictures of real things…it’s jarring.
TC: Well the thing you are reading was not made out of whole cloth. Already a lot of what you are reading leans toward memoir. But you know a lot of it must have been made up, not just because of the label, but because of some of the texture of the recollection. It is too precise not to be made up in some way. There are a number of coincidences in this book that almost nobody picks up that I’m embedding inside the text. So then you’re struggling. “It’s reading a lot like a memoir, but I want it to be fiction because it says it’s fiction.” And then you see these photos and it seems someone went on a trip and took these photos.
[Points to picture of a goat on the street, which relates to a passage in the book.] I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but…I didn’t have to set that up. It’s a street photo. It was by chance and by patience and just by the way anyone makes a street photograph that’s worth keeping. One thing I’ll say about this photograph is that this photograph appeared about seven years after the text, but it wasn’t posed. It is a street scene from Lagos. [These photographs] are also works of fiction.
TM: [One passage in the book describes a lynching, a filming of which circulated on VHS tapes.] You can’t photograph a lynching.
TC: I could go out and photograph a lynching, but that’s not what I want to do. You see this and you see that.
TM: No, you couldn’t do a lynching. Not in this book.
TC: Well maybe not here in the U.S.
TM: Well not in this book. It wouldn’t be acceptable.
TC: To whom? Maybe Random House would not want to publish it for its own reasons. But I totally could. You don’t understand what it’s like on the street over there. You have never driven down the street and seen a body decomposing for three days. It’s inconceivable. It’s not inconceivable in Lagos. And nothing would stop me from leaning out of a car and taking that picture. And you can go on YouTube and see lynchings.
TM: Yes, but you still wouldn’t put it in the book.
TC: The reason I wouldn’t put it in the book is because it wouldn’t function psychologically the way I want it to function in the book.
TM: Exactly, that’s what I’m getting at. Everything else is much more emotive.
TC: That’s right. Most of the photos in this book are anti-spectacular pictures.
TM: The photographic evidence of a child being lynched here would be assaultive.
TC: That would not keep it from being in the book, and I’ll tell you why. If you look at the work of someone like Sebald there are pictures not of piles of bodies, but of camps and empty interiors of cells or whatever. We have seen pictures of Auschwitz. They do exist. And they have a role that they play in these narratives. So it’s not impossible. It’s just that I was trying to do something different in this book. I was trying to present a series of pictures that if you did not read the text and you just looked at each photograph in the sequence that is presented, there is a kind of psychological mood that I’m building, which is quite similar to the one of the book. I think of it as a slant rhyme. [The photographs] rhyme with the book in a slant way.
TM: Not having that image of a lynching in this book plays off the narrator’s own desire not to look at something like this.
TC: It’s true, except that he does relive it in great detail. I don’t know. There’s definitely an aversion from the horror. When you’re in Lagos, you can’t avert your eyes. I’ve seen people being burnt. You can’t not see it. I don’t know. It’s a little complicated. I don’t know what role photography plays in terms of that particular act of violence. But if that’s what you want to do in a place like Lagos, you can do it because that’s a place where things like this happen and you can see the aftermath.
[He finally fixes his camera.]
Can we stroll up there before we lose the light?
[We head back upstairs.]
TM: There’s this idea that the maximum city is this late 20th-/early 21st-century phenomenon. Your approach to writing about [New York as well as the maximum city of Lagos] is [through the] intimate view of the flaneur, or stroller. Why?
TC: I think it’s because I believe in small-scale stories as a thing that can be revealing about what is true of a place. You don’t need to be that guy [Kenneth] Jackson, the guy who does those big New York books. You could do it that way, as an encyclopedia. Do we need that? Nobody needs to read a 1200-page history of New York.
Now I’m writing a non-fiction book about Lagos. It’s more panoramic. It’s going to owe a lot to Every Day Is for the Thief, to Open City, [but also to] [Orhan Pamuk’s] Istanbul, to [Michael Ondaatje’s] Running in the Family. It’s going to have a lot of those essayistic/memoir-ish aspects but it also will have lots of interviews.
TM: Do you love Lagos?
TM: Do you love New York?
TM: I sensed that in both books.
TC: It’s funny. When I was writing Open City I thought I hated New York. As I was writing it, I saw it was a love letter. When I was writing Every Day Is for the Thief, I had a love/hate relationship with Lagos. But then afterwards I realized that I love Lagosians, but I hate Lagos. Because I hate what the city does to the people who live there.
[Problem with the camera] Once again. Unbelievable.
TM: Are you drawn to write about Lagos from a feeling of responsibility?
TC: That’s how it’s being sold, but even if you don’t love the place, it’s an interesting subject. You don’t become a war reporter because you love war. You report on war because it expands and complicates our idea of what war is. As a Nigerian-American who lives in the United States, I would like to complicate our sense of what Nigeria is, of what Lagos is, of what Africa is like. So that’s why I write about it. Not because I hate it. Not because I’m from there. I’m working on my second book on it, and it probably won’t be my last.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
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.