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

August 5, 2011

I think most authors would describe the reading process as one that is necessarily solitary. And then the content and words, after having been digested once twice three times, should be brought up one last time and shared with others. And discussed with others.

The process I am describing is that of a book club. Or something like it.

Reading is a multi-process event. We are programmed to perceive it as such throughout secondary school, and grow to miss it if we continue to read after grade school. Or at least, I have come to that point. And it is largely to the credit of authors like J.M. Coetzee, who toss so much more philosophy into their books than I can possibly translate into thoughts by reading it once.

I need help. Or I need to start rereading some books.

Life and Times of Michael K won J.M. Coetzee his first of two Man Booker Prizes. I have to be honest in stating that I could not completely envision how a book by J.M. Coetzee would possibly win that award after having finished Waiting for the Barbarians. It did not fit the mold of how I perceived the award – the voice and language was not sufficiently modern-romantic. When I started reading Life and Times of Michael K it did not quite hit either. I still don’t think that it makes sense. But then again, the man has won twice, so clearly he does something just right. Right?

I should clarify that this is not a critique of the book or the works of J.M. Coetzee. Just me trying to vocalize my confusion. Because, ultimately, I’m still haunted by Waiting for the Barbarians and its mysteries, still haunted by Life and Times of Michael K and was inches away from collecting another novel by him today at the library (Petersburg, prepare yourself).

Life and Times of Michael K is an immensely powerful read. A novella that packs a punch, hits every nerve that resides in your body, affects your breathing for days to come, makes the air tingle and the ground dance with fury. In it you follow the life of Michael K, a slower-than-average man with a cleft lip, who gardens in his South African home until war hits, his mother falls ill, and requests to go home.

Her home is a small town many days of travelling away. And getting a travelling permit is pretty much impossible. Illegally, with his sick mother wrapped in a wheelbarrow, Michael K moves from his coastal village to the interior. His mother a long the way dies as a result of the illness that plagued her in the city. Michael K is taken aback. What is he to do? He has lost his sense of direction, his job. He is somehow a fugitive without having done anything wrong.

He mourns, and then is told that he cannot mourn anymore because there is no more space for him to mourn. His mother is burned – he is given the ashes. He moves on. The vastness of his adventure, captured in so few pages, is shocking.

Michael K finds what he thinks is his mother’s birth place, it almost fits into the description that she gave him. It is close enough to her hometown to almost fit. He sets up home. Kills wildlife to survive, starts growing seeds, but is haunted by the fear that the tragedy that befell the owners of the land that he now inhabits will befall him. He starts to transform. He becomes a mystery.

And then the narrator changes – to the doctor that tries to heal him in a hospital. And can’t. How he fights for Michael K. The ending arrives, Michael has escaped again, and just finally loses his innocence. He gets caught up in the civil war and strife that he has so successfully avoided interacting with for his entire life. This is the life and times of Michael K. I hope you have read it – and if you haven’t, I hope that you plan to read it. Because I am leaving a lot of greatness out of this synopsis.

Coetzee is an interesting author because these worlds he writes about are instantly real (and perhaps, in the early 1980s in South Africa were not so far off) but immediately dystopian. There is crisis after crisis after crisis destroying human dignity. And you don’t know how to interpret it. The change of the narrator begins to help, but it fails, it seems. It is an interpretation for self-justification. Did Coetzee want to make his writers aware of their own selfish reading? Mayhaps. Mayhaps so many things. (why do I not have a book club, yet?)

The language that Coetzee uses is immediately unsettling. He makes the world stuck in war seem post-apocalyptic, as though it is falling to pieces. And yet he does not take the time to tell you how to think. He just describes. He sees the world, and has you understand it. It is very unique writing – and, unlike in Waiting for the Barbarians, it does not take 80 to 100 pages for the voice to settle. The writer has matured and has found out how he can communicate even more efficiently the destruction that he envisions:

“The time came to return his mother to the earth. He tried to dig a hole on the crest of the hill west of the dam, but an inch from the surface the spade met solid rock. So he moved to the edge of what had been cultivated land below the dam and dug a hole as deep as his elbow. He laid the packet of ash in the hole and dropped the first spadeful of earth on top of it. Then he had misgivings. He closed his eyes and concentrated, hoping that a voice would speak reassuring him that what he was doing was right – his mother’s voice, if she still had a voice, or a voice beloning to no one in particular, or even his own voice as it sometimes spoke telling him what to do. But no voice came. So he extracted the packet from the hole, taking the responsibility on himself, and set about clearing a path a few metres square in the middle of the field. There, bending low so that they would not be carried away by the wind, he distributed the fine grey flakes over the earth, afterwards turning the earth over spadeful by spadeful.

This was the beginning of his life as a cultivator. On a shelf in the shed he had found a packet of pumpkin seeds, some of what he had already idly roasted and eaten; he still had the mealie kernels; and on the pantry floor he had even picked up a solitary bean. In the space of a week he cleared the land near the dam and restored the system of furrows that irrigated it. Then he planted a small patch of pumpkins and a small patch of mealies; and some distance away on the river bank, where he  would have to carry water to it, he planted his bean, so that if it grew it could climb into the thorntrees.”

Ultimately, and after having read two of his novellas, I am thinking that the great manifesto that Coetzee is placing on the history of literature is a critique of civilization. It is not merely society, but civilization. The mystery of being uncivilized and yet managing, whereas civilization and the power of desire is so destructive that it cannot manage. It injures itself. But is this his point? Just as the doctor, who attempts to interpret Michael and may actually have succeeded or may actually have failed, I don’t know.

Spellbinding. That is the word that I can use to describe this book. And I look forward to reading more, anything more, by this author. I am thoroughly, thoroughly impressed.

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