It is comforting to know that two of the foremost literary minds of this century, Paul Auster and JM Coetzee, spend a portion of their time writing letters to each other. Rather than being old-fashioned, however, a collection of their epistolary exchange seems to live up to its urgent title, Here and Now. When Nobel laureate Coetzee sat down to write a letter to Auster in July 2008, he decided to start by noting the importance of friendship. Paul Auster, who revolutionised contemporary American fiction with books such as The New York Trilogy, wasn’t pompous in later replies. To seemingly demonstrate the otherwise philosophical exchange, Auster pointedly enquires if Coetzee’s partner has recovered from the bronchitis she caught in Europe.
Here and Now gives you more than you expect. Predictable references to Plato are undercut by a mention of Johnny Depp. Their repartee proves true Auster’s observation in his letter of April 8, 2009 — “The pleasure of competition [...] is most keen when the opponents are evenly matched.” The communication, though, isn’t all fun and cricket. They animatedly discuss the fallout of the global economic crisis as also the continuing relevance of the Middle East conflict. Their concern for the immediate reality they inhabit is perhaps best demonstrated in Coetzee’s signature to a November 2010 letter — “Yours in dark times, John.” While a reference to India in the early letters of 2011 can make the country’s literary enthusiasts cheer, it does somehow seem fitting that Coetzee, a guest at the Jaipur literary festival, found ease staring at India’s cows, not with Diggi Palace’s “puzzled” audience.
A practised irreverence for the literary establishment seems evident in the honesty they demonstrate while penning their thoughts on Philip Roth’s latest offering and while predicting the reception that Auster’s Invisible (2009) would receive. Since Here and Now only collects their correspondence during 2008 and 2011, there is no evidence of Coetzee mocking a world bewildered to find he had named his 2013 novel The Childhoood of Jesus. On the face of it, the only relation that Coetzee’s narrative has to the story of Christ’s early years is the fact that each has as its protagonist a precocious and seemingly gifted child.
Unlike safe Bethlehem, Coetzee’s prodigy finds himself in a country that has no name. The name David is one that he acquires at a desert camp. It isn’t quite a name that he has been given. Simón, the man who accompanies him is not his father, but someone who, like Joseph, claims he will tell strangers that the boy whose hand he holds is his own. The energy which Simón invests in order to keep David safe and the dedication he demonstrates while toiling in a grain wharf resembles the ardour which Joseph is said to have displayed in his carpenter’s workshop. But in a departure from the Christian story of nativity, Coetzee’s tale lacks, for much part, the luxury of maternal affection.
Simón finally finds David a mother by simply following his instinct. In a Kafkaesque world of infinite possibilities, he chances upon a woman in the countryside who he feels will be the perfect mother to his practically orphaned ward. Soon after, Coetzee again seems to invoke the gospels. When Inés tells David she likes him most in the world, he immediately prompts her with a question that suggests an allusion to the theory of Immaculate Conception. “Which man do you like most in the world,” he asks, “to make a baby in your tummy?” The exceptionality later ascribed to David is proof perhaps that The Childhood of Jesus is at its heart, a novelistic record of a second coming.
As WB Yeats and certain interpretations of the Bible would have it, a returned messiah would combine the docility of a lamb and the ferocity of a lion. Coetzee seems to have employed a similar synthesis in the style of his latest book. While Childhood marks a return to the allegorical structures of earlier books like The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), it also bears the social specificity of later works like Diary of a Bad Year (2007). The warm welcome which Simón and David receive in Novilla is ultimately proven to be a polite nicety in a Utopia whose insufficiencies David exposes with his rebellion at school. What Coetzee seems to borrow from the testaments is the hope that any human individual can come to possess a more holistic understanding of the universe. The need to adapt existing ideas of change is best underscored by the final line of Coetzee’s last letter to Auster in Here and Now — “The world keeps throwing up its surprises. We keep learning.”