Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee



This book is beautifully written but difficult to read because of the hard life and grim times the protagonist must endure. It is not a long book and might even be close to a novella. The sentences are clear and elegant and convey complex thoughts about the human spirit and the human condition in a sparse crystalline prose.

Michael K. (we never learn his last name) is a black South African living through an imagined civil war. It is hard to tell which side is winning as the country is full of marauding soldiers careless of the destruction they are imposing on the civilian population. Michael was born with a facial deformity, a cleft lip, that his mother could easily have had repaired but didn’t bother. Instead she abandoned him to an orphanage for the intellectually challenged.   In this institution he grows up friendless and unloved. Eventually he is given work as a gardener in a city park where he stays until his mother becomes ill and summons him to take her back to the place of her birth. His mother has worked all her life as a domestic servant and when she is unable to work she lives in fear that she will end up living on the street. Although she has savings that would allow her to make the journey by train she and Michael are not able to acquire the requisite documents that would permit them to travel legally. Michael resorts to rigging up a wheelbarrow in such a way that he can carry his mother and their possessions in the hope of completing the distance on foot. Along the way her condition worsens. She is hospitalized and then dies. Michael is left with her ashes in a box wrapped in brown paper. He grieves his mother’s death despite the way she has treated him and decides to continue the journey and to sprinkle her ashes in the place where she had hoped to retire. Thus begins the strife-riddled adventures of Michael K that takes him across the veldts and mountains of South Africa where at every turn ruthless soldiers threaten him. He is first conscripted into a work camp and then incarcerated in another camp for the homeless. After escaping these dreadful places he resorts to living in a hole in the ground to evade being picked up by the military authorities who seem to be everywhere at once.

His hiding place is on the farm where his mother grew up and he finds solace in planting a few pumpkin seeds and encouraging them to grow. Having been provided little education and nothing like parental guidance he discovers his emotional and spiritual self in caring for these plants as if they were his children. While I know this novel is filled with metaphors that relate back to the history of South Africa in the twentieth century there is a sub text here that examines the essence of what it is to have a soul. There is a source of grace in the land and in the earth where Michael grows his pumpkins and in the mountains where he escapes and lives on nothing but the ether of the view of sunrise and sunset over sheer rock. In the process of evading the soldiers and discovering his purpose in life he very nearly starves to death.

This book is divided into three parts. Part I is narrated in the third person singular, Part II by a doctor who is caring for Michael after he has been arrested and abused by soldiers and then Part III returns to the omniscient third person. The doctor takes an active interest in Michael even though he never gets his name right. He is fascinated by Michael’s independence of spirit and his refusal to enjoy the comforts and privileges offered by the hospital. The doctor sees Michael, who possesses nothing but a few rags and a body reduced to a walking skeleton, as having something he cannot attain; a spiritual guiding light. The doctor has even forgotten what the war is about until one of his colleagues reminds him, “We are fighting this war… so that minorities will have a say in their destinies.” When Michael escapes the prison hospital the doctor fantasizes about following Michael and becoming his disciple imagining Michael has the answers to the questions of living and dying as if he were one of god’s holy fools.

It took me a long time to read this book and even a longer time to write about it. I have taken it up and put it down again many times over the last month and at some points almost given up on it because its images are so powerful. It is hard to enter into a world of someone who has never been loved or encouraged or appreciated by anyone, not even his own mother. Sometimes I felt compelled to reread certain paragraphs in an attempt to work out how a particular choice of words could be simple and yet nightmarishly  evocative of a menacing,  verisimilar world drawn out of the imagination. My not so brilliant conclusion is the obvious one that this novel is a literary work of art executed by a gifted author














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