Friday, 10 April 2009

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

Read: Feb 2008

In a country ripped apart by civil war, a simple gardener sets out to return his mother to her rural birthplace. But standing in the way of them is the vast bureaucracy of wartime administration: passes and permits and visas must be obtained, patiently waited for while social order gradually breaks down. Eventually they decide to walk, Michael pushing his mother in a modified wheelbarrow, following the roads and hiding in the undergrowth whenever a truck appears of the horizon. But Michael’s mother dies on the way, plugged into machines in a hospital while he is banished from her side. When he returns an overworked nurse hands him a box of ashes and he is left alone in a rapidly disintegrating world. So he retreats into the mountains, and the veld, vast empty spaces where he can be alone and live his own life, peaceful and untroubled by the wider world and its wars. After a time he is picked up and taken to a semantically disguised prison camp and forced to work for his living. But Michael is unable to stand this confinement and unwilling to break his back rebuilding a human world which everyone else seems to want to blow up and so he escapes and returns to his mothers place of birth, to join the long line of children in his family history, tending to the earth and hiding from everyone who comes his way.

Imagine the roving dogs of Disgrace and morph them into myriad different armies and battalions and you can picture the sort of anarchic yet dictatorial world Michael finds himself in. But he wants nothing to do with that absurd world; all he wishes is to be left alone to luxuriate in the peaceful natural world around him. To bend his head to the soil and crawl along, buglike, in the shadows as he encourages seeds to grow and live. He is a man of nature, doesn’t belong in such a harsh, fast world, and his will to survive on his own terms makes for an enthralling novel.

Coetzee’s Booker winning tale of incidental defiance is simply written, without pretence or fuss, just like its eponymous character. And in its simplicity all the facets of life are enunciated, so blindingly obvious it is wonder we cannot all follow them. His is a simple, universal truth. We follow Michael as he bounces from one man-made atrocity to another, never contaminated by the horrors of the world around him. Although at first he struggles to live – hunting, killing, cooking, storing – he is soon worn down by the pace of life and retreats into his own, internal and spiritual life, cut off from everyone else, living as if on a different timescale, a different planet, to the other characters.

Life and Times of Michael K
is a beautiful novel. Coetzee’s impassioned tone implores sense into the world, urges the simpler things in life, the need for time and space and the importance of nature over and above the precarious structures man seeks to impose upon it. At its heart this is another of Coetzee’s paeans to South Africa, its immense, desolate land and the space it should offer. It may be set against a backdrop of apartheid civil war, but is never about divisive issues like race. Rather it honours the unique in us all, the common humanity and the uniform suffering of war. It is about the relationship between man and nature, between a gardener and his land, man-made clock time and the slowly ululating time of nature. As you read on it becomes increasingly obvious that Michael is not suited to life, that his style of simple living cannot survive in such a harsh world. He is both an intensely lovable and infuriatingly frustrating character, he has virtually no voice of his own, no inner monologue to commentate on the events he is experiencing, to make sense of his strange mind. Some may find this frustrating, and it certainly takes the emotional heart of the novel further away, just out of the readers grasp. But that is the point, what good would Michael K’s unique attitude to life be if he saw the world and talked about it and thought about it the way everyone else does. It is his refusal to take part in any aspect of common life which makes him such an enthralling character. As another reviewer writes (so coherently that I have to quote here):

“In a society in which a whole group of its citizens is accorded no value, what happens when one of them values himself even less? The answer: he becomes like a double negative; and double negatives become positives. 'The obscurest of the obscure,' as Coetzee puts it, 'so obscure as to be a prodigy.'”

Relating to Michael K is impossible, it would be like relating to God, or the Queen. Their entire plain of existence is so dramatically different as to be mind boggling. But it is beautiful just watching. And in the end it is a real delight to find such a profoundly resonant and understated final image: Michael, standing in his garden with a broken well before him, bending a tiny spoon, tying rope around it and drawing water from the earth one spoon at a time. “In that way,” he says, “one can live.”

8 out 10

1 comment:

Sam Jordison said...

Great post Sam... `Really intersting reading, even if I don't entirely agree... and it's made me realise something that was subconsciously troubling me about Michael K... You're right that we don't really experience his inner life... But I think that's partly why I found his occasional stunning eloquence so out of place.

(Okay, I really have to leave the computer and read Possession now!)