I approached J. M Coetzee’s Booker Prize winning novella The Life & Times of Michael K hoping against hope it would be easier to penetrate than the last novel I read by him: The Schooldays of Jesus. I found the latter simply baffling as you can tell from my review. The Life & Times of Michael K fortunately proved more straightforward though I can’t say that reading it was a wholly satisfying experience.
It started in a promising fashion with the introduction to Michael, a simple man who has spent his childhood in institutions and works as a gardener in Cape Town. Michael tends to his mother, a domestic servant to a wealthy family. Michael is a man deformed by a hare lip, a disfigurement which makes people look down on him. They view him as a simpleton, as a doctor later explains:
He is a simpleton, and not even an interesting simpleton. He is a poor helpless soul who has been permitted to wander out on the battlefield, if I may use that word, the battlefield of life, when he should have ben shut away in an institution with high walls, stuffing cushions or watering the flower beds.
Lacking in intellectual power he might be but Michael is a good son who wants to do right by his mother. When she becomes very sick and decides she wants to return to her birthplace, he quits his job so he can take her home. But the country has descended into civil war and martial law has been imposed so he cannot get the proper permits for travel out of the city. He builds a shoddy rickshaw in which he pushes his mother through the streets and onto the main highways out into the countryside. It’s an arduous journey. The roads are full of armed convoys from whom they must hide and other travellers who want to steel their possessions. At night they have to sleep hidden among straggling roots and wet bracken with only cold food to eat. His mother’s health declines further but when she dies Michael resolves to carry on alone to deliver his mother’s ashes.
He finds the farm at Prince Albert where his mother once lived but it is abandoned and desolate. Soon, Michael is living in a dug-out, communing with nature, making a garden where he grows melons and barely surviving. His melon-growing might have been highly allegorical but if so its significance was rather lost on me.
Every so often Michael’s quiet and happy existence is disrupted by a war he feels is nothing to do with him. He finds himself in and out of prison and labour camps that have sprung up all over the country, forced to work, and to answer questions he does not understand. His act of defiance is to rejecting the food his captors give him and then to escape, managing to return to the apartment where he and his mother lived in Cape Town. He is still the mute and simple man he was at the beginning, he acknowledges. But he has learned some things from his experiences. One was how to be a better farmer.
The mistake I made, he thought, going back in time, was not to have had plenty of seeds, a different packet of seeds for each pocket…. Then my mistake was to plant all my seeds together in one patch. I should have planted them one at a time spread out over miles of veld in patches of soil no larger than my hand, and drawn a map and kept it with me at all times so that every night I could make a tour of the sites to water them.
And that he is happiest when left alone. Everywhere he goes there are people who want to exercise their form of charity upon him, asking him questions.
They want me to open my heart and tell them the story of a life lived in cages. They want to hear all abut the cages I have lived in as if I were a budgie or a white mouse or a monkey. … When my story was finished people would have shaken their heads and been sorry and angry and plied me with food and drink;women would have taken me into their beds and mothered me in the dark. … I have escaped the camps; perhaps, if I lie low, I will escape the charity too.
That reflection and Michael’s interpretation of his experiences represented the flaw in this book for me. They come in the final pages of the novel and feel totally out of character. We’re now far removed from the man described by a doctor in the labour camp as ”an original soul . . . untouched by doctrine, untouched by history . . . evading the peace and the war . . . drifting through time”. Michael along the way acquires sufficient deep insight to ask searching questions and pass comments about whether his time in a camp is a process of self-education.
I understood this was a novel about passive resistance to oppression and about survival but Coetzee had me perplexed by his ending with its last-minute imposition of a “message”. He makes Michael ask: “Is that the moral of it all…that there is time for everything? Is that how morals come?”. Completely out of character, clumsy and unnecessary. Spoiling an otherwise reasonable yarn.
About the book: The Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee was published in 1983 by Secker and Warburg. My copy is a paperback edition published by Vintage in 2004. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1983.
About the author: John Maxwell “J. M.” Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. Apart from his fictional writings he is also an essayist, linguist, translator. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He relocated to Australia in 2002, becoming an Australian citizen four years later. He has an impressive record with the Booker prize, the first author to receive the prize twice ( the other was Disgrace in 1999 (reviewed here). His novel Summertime, was shortlisted and was hotly tipped to win but ultimately lost out to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. He made the longlist in 2003 for Elizabeth Costello, 2005 for Slow Man and again in 2016 with The Schooldays of Jesus.
Why I read this book: Quite simply I read it because it was one of the books I hadn’t got around to on my Booker prize project