THE CHILDHOOD OF JESUS. By J. M. Coetzee. Viking. 277 pages. $26.95.

J.M. Coetzee's new novel "The Childhood of Jesus" is a spare and inscrutable little masterpiece, a work whose dramatic jumble of moods matches its disorienting subject matter.

Coetzee is a great artist in peak condition, one who continues to surprise. Since 2003, he has been writing a series of strange, playful fictions ("Elizabeth Costello," "Slow Man," "Diary of a Bad Year," "Summertime") that deal with the collapse of certainty. Here is a novel about many things, but especially belief and the loss of belief. Coetzee's severe economy of language and structure strip away all distractions: in stark form he gives us human need answered by the material world's indifference.

The plot unfolds in a straightforward way. In short order, a man and a boy enter a new land and arrive at the city of Novilla. The man is Simon, the boy David - names they were assigned at a desert resettlement camp, along with ages and birthdays. They are speaking Spanish, a language they haven't yet mastered. Simon is no relation to David, but he accepts responsibility for him. On the ship where they met, David wore a little pouch around his neck containing information about his parents. When he loses the pouch, Simon steps in.

How and why did they become refugees? We never know. They, along with everyone else in Novilla, have been "washed clean" of memories. Early on, Simon tells David, "We have been given a chance to live and have accepted that chance. It is a great thing to live. It is the greatest thing of all." But living in Novilla is, as Simon says, a "bloodless" gift. Everyone is kind and decent; Simon and and David are blanketed by "good will" in their unlikely Bethlehem. Nothing is urgent. Everyone else is content to live on a diet of bread and bean paste. Only Simon doesn't want to "starve the dog of hunger." He wants to feed it.

After some bureaucratic rigmarole - finding a room first for the night, then the duration; locating a job for Simon (stevedoring); getting paperwork filed and allowances issued - the man and boy set about their first great mission, identifying a mother for David. Miraculously, they do. Playing tennis on a fine estate is Ines, who allows herself to be convinced that she is David's "one and only mother." So the pieces of a quasi-holy family are in place: exceptional child, foster father and virgin mother.

Just what is Coetzee up to? He doesn't seem stirred by the obvious questions: What would Jesus do? Or what would we do if Jesus showed up among us? David himself is a problematic savior. Coetzee studs the novel with biblical allusions and affinities, but nothing adds up. Sometimes, it's not clear whether he means to bring to life the shadowy years of Jesus' childhood or parody the very idea of the divine. When David has a notion that he can heal the sick and resurrect the dead, those around him treat it as evidence of wrongheadedness or grandiosity.

At one point, David writes on the board, "I am the truth." Later, he tells an official, "I haven't got a mother and I haven't got a father. I just am." David's mystical sense of himself is at once his most maddening and endearing quality. The story of a colossal talent maneuvering through a narrow world is the beating heart of the novel.

If David is "the only one among us with eyes to see," what exactly is his vision? Increasingly, his pronouncements turn on the contest between spirit and matter. All around him are tight, discreet, rule-bound lives. He revolts against them, refusing to read at school or to count numbers in sequence. He insists on speaking in a language all his own. His only book, a kind of bible for him, is "Don Quixote." With the Don, he speaks for the reality of the imagination and against rational systems. For him, a windmill will always be a giant. As the novel gathers momentum, David becomes another rebel who is persecuted for his vision.

Although he has been an Australian citizen since 2006, Coetzee's literature is still defined by his South African heritage. In 1987, he wrote, "South African literature is a literature of bondage, as it reveals in even its highest moments, shot through as they are with feelings of homelessness and yearnings for a nameless liberation. It is a less than fully human literature, unnaturally preoccupied with power and the torsions of power. ... It is exactly the kind of literature you would expect people to write from a prison."

With "The Childhood of Jesus," Coetzee once again turns to a castaway hero, wandering a world of unappeasable sadness and unmet longing. Homelessness and foreignness are metaphysical conditions, his works seem to say. Novilla becomes a prison for David, Simon, and Ines. As the novel closes, Coetzee sends his makeshift family on a flight toward the next new life, one that will likely withhold explanations as well. As David's prophesies suggest, the logical brain will always come up short against the riddle of existence.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.