Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee (Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers)

Such a melancholy, haunting book! Life & Times of Michael K won the Booker in 1983, and no wonder - its a spare, precise prose is perfect for the pared-down life of its central character, Michael K.

He's a misfit; near mute from a disfguring cleft palate, and intellectually disabled. He's taken from his mother and put into a 'home' where he is barbarously ill-treated. In adulthood he lives a simple life as a gardener, but all that changes when his ailing mother asks to be taken to her old hometown, Prince Alfred in the Cape. He makes a simple barrow and sets off, unable to acquire the requisite permit because of bureaucratic delay, but his mother dies en route. (This need to have a permit, BTW, is what identifies him as non-White, for Whites in the apartheid era could travel wherever they liked within South Africa without permits.)

The K, I think, is an allusion to Kafka, for like K in The Trial, Michael K is an innocent abroad in an insane world, where he is falsely accused of 'crimes' that are illegal only in the obscene regime of South Africa under apartheid. Determined to travel on so that he can spread his mother's ashes, Michael then loses what little he has, but takes up residence in an abandoned farmhouse and begins to grow pumpkins and melons. When the owner's son returns (AWOL from the undefined war, which identifies him as White since all Whites had to undergo national service) Michael has to move on again, and takes shelter in a cave. There, half-starved, he is arrested by the security forces who interpret his inarticulate manner as cover for helping the rebels.

So he's interned, and the novel reaches a crescendo when Michael's refusal to eat is interpreted as a political protest. He's too inadequate and inarticulate to even think it for himself, but the medical officer takes over the narration and fills us in on Michael's subconscious desire to be free of camps and controls and restrictions.

K escapes, and returns to Cape Town. He is taken up by a bizarre group of homeless pimps and prostitutes but they too try to steal from him. The novel closes with Michael living on teaspoons of water and fantasising about a return to the farm.

I think that what Coetzee is saying is that there is no place for people like Michael K anywhere in a society that has no compassion, but that K is able to retain his dignity by controlling the one thing he can - his body. He is anorexic, past curing, but he is indomitable.

This novel was written at a time when both Reagan and Thatcher were defying UN condemnation of the apartheid regime and Thatcher had declared the ANC a terrorist organisation. I think the melancholy tone of Life and Times of Michael K reflects the hopelessness of those who were working for the abolition of apartheid in that period.

I finished reading and journalled this book on 28.8.2002.
Cross posted at The Complete Booker.

Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers

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