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Life and Times of Michael K: A Novel

2 Ratings: 3.5
A book by J. M. Coetzee

First published in 1983 and winner of the Booker Prize. Set in a turbulent South Africa, a young gardener decides to take his mother away from the violence towards a new life in the abandoned countryside, but finds that war follows wherever he goes. … see full wiki

Tags: Books, Cafe Libri, Fiction, Literary Fiction, J M Coetzee
Author: J. M. Coetzee
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Penguin
1 review about Life and Times of Michael K: A Novel

The Righteous Man in Wartime

  • Jul 28, 2010
When it comes to artists in South Africa during racial segregation, I assume that lots of them found ways to work without mentioning apartheid, but it's hard to imagine how. Like the work of artists in the American South during slavery times or artists in Russia during Communism, South African artists would have to deal with their system in some fashion unless they were deliberately ignoring it, and even then it would color everything unconsciously. Part of what's so great about "The Life and Times of Michael K" is that it never mentions race once, but racial struggle underlies the whole novel. That's true of a lot of J.M. Coetzee's work from that period, but not because he was trying to turn away. It's pretty clear that he wrote that way on purpose, which demands control, skill and a great soul.

Michael K, born with a cleft lip, is kind of slow. He grows up in an orphanage, but moves back in with his mother upon reaching adulthood and lives with her in a tiny apartment downstairs from the wealthy couple she keeps house for. Just as the infirmities of old age begin to catch up with her, a civil war begins. The wealthy employers flee, Michael's mother decides she'd like to go back to her childhood home in the country, Michael jumps through all kinds of hoops to get her there, and then she dies en route. (That's not a spoiler; you can read the same information on the dust jacket.)

Well, there's Michael, or K as the narrative calls him, with no plan or goal to speak of, almost no resources and few life skills. He's in the middle of a place he's never seen before, a countryside crawling with rebels and soldiers. All of this is complicated by the fact that, although it's never made clear, K is almost certainly "colored". What's he going to do? That's the story, of course.

Truthfully, Coetzee's skill at story construction astonishes me. He chose just the right main character, for instance - K's mental difficulties prevent him from going too deeply into his own motives for doing this or that, and it also prevents the other characters from learning those motives. In some stories that might be a weakness. Here it actually makes K stronger than those who try to push him around. He's in the middle of a circumstance where nothing makes sense anyway, but whereas others try to respond rationally to lunatic circumstance and find all such actions futile, K simply does what calls to him. He has plenty of trouble, but nothing seems to bother him. One other character, a doctor in a refugee camp, watches K go about his business in this manner and concludes that he's a saint. Which he isn't, but he's certainly closer to it than practically anyone else.

Okay, so what exactly calls to him? It's got something to do with getting as close to the land as possible; he is, after all, a former municipal gardener. He takes the minimum from the earth that's necessary for his survival, and cares for the earth as best he can with what he has. He rarely resists when anyone takes him to a camp or a prison or anything crazy like that - he just returns to the land as soon as possible. He makes no value judgments and corrects no one's mistakes, he just is. Remarkable, considering his surroundings.

Which brings us to the comparison some have critics have made between this novel and Kafka's "The Trial," which also features a character named K trying to contend with a lunatic world. The protagonists also share a certain passivity, or maybe just acceptance; they don't resist anything, or conclude that the world they live in is wrong. They just deal with it as best as they can. On the other hand, the distinctions between the works are crucial; Kafka's novel is a cry of pain and Coetzee's is not.

While we're on the subject, I'm a little surprised at how few have noticed the similarities between "Life and Times" and Kozinski's "Being There", another novel about a mentally delayed man who works as a gardener and must suddenly make his way in the larger world. The difference in that case is that Kozinski focused on how Chauncey Gardiner, without even noticing it, causes others to reveal what they really are - Coetzee's novel concentrates on K himself and what he learns by disregarding what's around him.

This is where Coetzee's refusal to call apartheid by name proves to be so clever. In "Life and Times" he's dealing with the generic insanity of civilization, rather than a particular insane system, and shows us a main character who's capable of defeating it by simply ignoring it. I can't see how that would be possible in a novel about apartheid - there was too much emotional upheaval associated with that - but it sure works here. Poor, lost, despised, uncomprehending Michael K remains the most powerful character in the book, just because he doesn't fight the insanity. He goes along with it until he can get away, and then he leaves. Unlike Kafka's characters, Michael K is at peace.

More accurately, he's at peace when the novel concludes. If he started out that way, "Life and Times" would lack that critical element, the protagonist's growth. As it is, this novel is about an uneducated outcast who asks the ancient question "How shall a man live"? and answers it in a way that brings him peace. Maybe he is a saint, at that.

Benshlomo says, A wise person learns wisdom from those who live in the gutter.

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September 27, 2010
I'm a big fan of Coatzee's writing. Nice review!
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