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‘Life and Times of Michael K’ – a Review

October 4, 2009

Michael K

‘Life and Times of Michael K’ is Coetzee vintage. One of the few books marking the milestones in the author’s career… and I am not talking in terms of awards.

The protagonist Michael is a simpleton to the point of being mentally challenged, having been institutionalized in childhood. The apartheid war is going on all around him, but his is a life completely calm, until his mother falls ill. He then embarks on a journey to her birthplace. This becomes his quest, his purpose. On the way his mother dies but he continues the journey. At last he reaches the supposed birthplace of his mother and stays in the wilderness there, trying to live off the land. He is drawn into the war a few times but he refuses to participate in it and again and again returns to try living a simple life. At last he returns to the city, with the same sense of confusion and disorientation of war.

The protagonist Michael is a non-conformist, who is unwilling to join the war between the civilization and the barbarians, on either side.

Coetzee treats Michael K differently than his previous heroes. He is neither a brutalized caricature of a racist-colonialist like the hero of Dusklands, nor is he the romantic hero of ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ who, in a Quixotic act, turns against his own civilization, completely taking the side of the black Africans.

Coetzee is maturing in this novel. Unlike his unequivocal leftist sympathies of previous works, in this novel he just theoretically sympathizes with the barbarians. In practice he prefers living off the land, unconcerned with any side of war and favoring a Romantic return to the nature.

This is a disturbing novel. Ten pages into it and you feel dejected, confused and overcome by a sad lethargy.

In varying degrees, this is true of every work of Coetzee. Every page of his reflects the confusion arising from the African history. The delicate intellect of Coetzee looks with confusion at the innate violence of South Africa, the hopelessness of a nation made of irreconcilable halves and irresolvable issues, a nation clubbed together by historical accidents of its racist-colonialist past. The only emotions it can evoke are of horror, dismay fear and pity. But at the end every feeling mutates into a melancholic confusion. This is Coetzee’s reaction to the African tragedy. And this is the hero’s reaction too. Michael K is Coetzee, minus his intellect.

Michael also reflects the political orientation of Coetzee:

“Politically, the raznochinets can go either way. But during his student years he, this person, this subject, my subject, steers clear of the right. As a child in Worcester he has seen enough of the Afrikaner right, enough of its rant, to last him a lifetime. In fact, even before Worcester he has perhaps seen more of cruelty and violence than should have been allowed to a child. So as a student he moves on the fringes of the left without being part of the left. Sympathetic to the human concerns of the left, he is alienated, when the crunch comes, by its language – by all political language, in fact.”[1]

Exactly! Skimming along the fringes of left but not completely owning it.

The novel asserts that a ‘simple’ man like Michael does not take any side. The only wish he has is to live a ‘simple’ life with Nature. But the reader suspects that the simplicity of Michael is not that simple at all. He muses whether it is an indifference forced upon a simple personality by a superior intellect, an intellect committed to a certain point of view, certain ideology.

A simple man would not have remained indifferent to such a human tragedy. He would have reacted with anger, pity, sorrow or dejection.

Such a vision as that of Michael can only be that of a white male of South Africa who is fiercely committed to the race, which is not his own and in consequence rejected by both of them. Only he can be so detached, so unable to take sides.

Any less delicate personality than Coetzee may have reacted otherwise. Such a literary genius as his deserved to be born in the pre-Victorian or Victorian England, patronized by the court or nobles. But unfortunately for him and fortunately for us he was born in a deeply disturbed time and a deeply disturbed place. All of his works stacked one upon other tell us this story, the story of a delicate literary genius trying to comprehend and prevent all the misery but at last unable to do so. The fact that Coetzee finally migrated to Australia shows that it came to a breaking point finally where he could no longer watch it.

[1] ^ Coetzee, J. M. (1992). Attwell, David. ed. Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA. p. 394. ISBN 0674215184.

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