J.M. Coetzee is a South African writer who was born in Cape Town in 1940. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003 and has won many other literary prizes, including the Booker twice – the first time for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 (the year it was published) and for Disgrace in 1999.
Life & Times of Michael K was our book group choice this week, chosen by Christine B. Here are our thoughts on it:
Michael K is set in the Civil War in South Africa in the 70s and early 80s when Coetzee’s country was chaotic, violent and desecrated. The land is very important in the story, almost as a character and justice is not considered. The story begins when Michael K is born with a hare lip. He attends a special school and becomes a gardener living with his mother. She decides that they leave the city and go back to her childhood home. Michael builds a vehicle based on a wheelbarrow for his mother but she dies and he continues the pilgrimage. It is long and tortuous and he experiences cruelty and gratuitous violence but he seems to be the sane man in a mad world; at no time are characters labelled black or white. However many times he is forced to move and suffer but continues with his aim to find some soil to plant seeds, grow vegetables, eat his crop of healthy food and pure water and settle.
The book has been considered Kafkaesque by some; I feel that his single-minded simplicity, patience and gentleness aims to achieve his idea of perfection in a mad world. He says, ‘I was mute and stupid in the beginning, I will be mute and stupid at the end. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being stupid.’ If you’ve not read the book read the final paragraph first.
This is a sad, bleak novel set in the Western Cape during a fictitious civil war. There are curfews and prison camps to incarcerate different types of offenders. The overall feeling is of a controlling, dystopian society that is fighting a war ’so that minorities will have a say in their destinies’. This made me think of the Group Areas Act of the Apartheid era. I preferred Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, but this is still an excellent novel which is prescient of a civil disorder that is still possible in South Africa.
The main character Michael K is a ‘simple’ Cape Coloured man, born with a harelip. He grows up in an orphanage and later works as a gardener in Cape Town. He moves back to stay with his mother in her tiny room when she becomes ill. There is civil disorder where they live and she decides to move back to her birthplace in the country. It is an arduous journey and she dies en route but K continues onwards taking her ashes to her birthplace, which has become an abandoned farm near Prince Albert.
He struck me as a very resourceful person who manages to find a way to live in the wilderness. A grandson of the farm owner, who is an army deserter, returns and treats K like a servant so he decides to leave, initially living in the mountains and later sleeping rough in Prince Albert where he is picked up and sent to a displaced persons labour camp which is similar to an internment camp. He later escapes and finds his way back to the farm. There is no sign of the grandson and he makes a life for himself building a hideout away from the house, growing pumpkins and eating insects. He manages to avoid a group of insurgents that pass through the farm one day but thereafter hides away during the day and became a ‘creature of twilight and night’ with highly developed senses of smell, taste and touch. He gradually becomes weaker and is discovered in this state by a visiting army patrol who suspect him of being linked to insurgents. He is transferred to a prison hospital in a rehabilitation camp on the outskirts of Cape Town.
K refuses most food and becomes weaker giving concern that he might die. The medical officer responsible for his care becomes fascinated with his case and comes to realise that K is an innocent civilian and his reason for not eating is that he wants to live on his own terms. K escapes from the camp and the medical officer envies his freedom and has an imaginary conversation with K asking to be led by him ‘ had I been awake and followed you, I could see that you did not belong in any camp’. He also asks K for forgiveness and says that ‘ Your stay in the camp was merely an allegory….of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it’. [ I think the story of K’s ill treatment and incarceration symbolizes the repressive political system in South Africa at the time ].
After his escape K meets up with a group of drifters in Cape Town who give him food, drink and introduce him to his first sexual experience. He returns to the apartment where he and his mother lived which is now cluttered with junk and has signs that another displaced person lives there. He reflects on how he has become an object of charity and like the camps ‘ I will escape the charity too’. He also reflects that ’the truth, the truth about me. I am a gardener’ and ‘ If there was one thing I discovered out in the country, it was that there is time enough for everything’.
I’m afraid I don’t have a lot to offer on this book. I began reasonably enthusiastically and it’s easy to get into but I faltered as I read further on. It’s such a sad beginning; a mother not able to accept her baby’s son’s physical deformity – a hare lip (something that could easily be treated these days) – and thus he is put in a home for other ‘unfortunate children’ where he suffers a loveless childhood, forced to carry out a kind of child hard labour. Unsurprisingly he grew up to find physical intimacy difficult and it ‘was easiest when he was by himself’. Despite being abandoned by his mother he is remarkably loyal to her. Living in a time of terrible civil unrest, with his world falling apart, Michael decides to leave Cape Town and take his sick and disabled mother back to the countryside town where she was born. Michael’s devotion and quiet assumption of loyalty to this mother who gave him up is moving, especially in the face of her constant complaining and his physical struggle to carry her on a crude homemade rickshaw. The sense of his impotence in the face of bullying South African officials and the impossibility of getting necessary permits to leave, and his quiet determination to beat the system, are all well drawn. Yet it was Michael passivity, the lack of emotion, and the relentless awfulness of life in South Africa at this time that made it all too bleak to read. In these pandemic lockdown times, I felt in need of something considerably more cheerful. Michael K was too much to bear and after soon skipping through it more quickly, I gave up completely about halfway. I discovered a similarly unimpressed review in the Guardian from 2009: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/jun/16/booker-club-jm-coetzee
I love this blog – and last week made two failed attempts last week to comment on WordPress about how much I enjoy reading this on Wednesday – including the additions – and especially being reminded of the quality of the readers in our group. So there it is. That’s the comment. You are all great. I am so glad I can reconnect with you here.
The problem I have is that I give myself one week with the book, then read (or listen to) it up to the deadline but have no energy left on Tuesday evening to write, so I always leave it till the next morning (which is my best writing time). THANK YOU Kay for being so tolerant and helping my review play catch up with the rest of you.
So it turns out that THANKS is mainly what I have to say this week. I have read (almost to the end) The Life and Times of Michael K. Thank you, Christine B, for bringing me back to Coetzee. Years ago I read Disgrace, and I am grateful for being reminded what a skilled author Coetzee is, both in his writing style – which manages to be both ‘lean and spare’ (as the Guardian review, link below, points out) yet wonderfully visually descriptive – and his ability to convey a sense of place and time. Reading Coetzee I am right there with the unfortunate protagonist, thinking his thoughts, living his life, seeing what he sees.
Unfortunately that is all I really have to say about the book. Did I enjoy it? Well, yes (for the writing) and no, because its mood really doesn’t match mine. Michael K – nearly always referred to simply as K(ay), is having a hard time. And I suppose I don’t really want to read about hard times just now. He is also finding some simple joys in his hardship, but they are overwhelmed by the insecurity of his position. Read Chapter 8 if you want a quick summary of this. It was my favourite chapter, and I couldn’t help reflecting on our own current lockdown and in what ways some similarities emerge (yes, I know…. but still…..)
But ultimately I also found the plot difficult and full of some troubling inconsistencies, which I couldn’t resolve in my head until I trawled through a few reviews. Read this one and you will see exactly what I mean. Sam Jordison captures for me just what bothered me about the book. He is obviously too hard on Coetzee (seems he disliked Disgrace, which I can’t understand but maybe I would, if I re-read it now) and fails to point out how well Coetzee captures South Africa at one of the most stricken times in its history. But generally he has it: why would a protagonist so continuously emphasised as a simpleton, turn out to be so smart. Answers, please, in the comments?
What an interesting set of thoughts – as always – about our book choice this week. If you’ve read Michael K and have some thoughts to share, do please post them in Comments below.