Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee

Both brilliant and flawed. The writing is fabulous. And it’s a tremendous achievement of imaginative prowess. The story is about Michael, a young black man who is born with a harelip and thus has difficulty speaking which he rarely does. He grows up in a home for handicapped children. He has no father and his mother is a servant in Cape Town. Michael works as a gardener. South Africa is in the grip of civil war. When his mother becomes ill she asks to be taken back to her childhood home, a remote desert region some distance from Cape Town. The novella is about Michael’s journey back to his roots.

Coetzee does a fabulous job of imagining a mind almost bereft of intelligence. Michael becomes a thing of the earth, half human, half earthworm (as he once refers to himself). But the regime sees him as a parasite and all his (admirable) efforts at self-reliance are threatened at all times by an order intent on hunting him and his like down. It has to be said Michael himself, his simplicity, drives you a bit nuts at times – you stumble over that suspending of disbelief tripwire at times because although we’re constantly reminded how simple Michael is there’s a sense that such pure simplicity has to be a construct. However this is only an intermittent misgiving. The big flaw though is the late intervention of another voice. That of the doctor in the camp in which Michael is interned. There’s a sense here that Coetzee is sermonising, telling us what we ought to make of Michael as allegory or symbol of his country’s plight. Michael vanishes from the novella has a living presence to be replaced by an intellectual idea. And when we return to Michael in part three most of the magic has gone. If there had been no sermonising from the camp doctor I might have given this five stars but I can’t get away from the feeling that this section of the novella was a clumsy error of judgement on Coetzee’s part.

Towards the end Michael remembers a schoolroom moment. His teacher sets the class a maths task. Twelve men eat six bags of potatoes. Each bag holds six kilograms of potatoes. He is asked what the quotient is. “He saw himself write down 12, he saw himself write down 6. He did not know what to do with the numbers. He crossed both out. He stared at the word quotient. It did not change, it did not dissolve, it did not yield its mystery. I will die, he thought, still not knowing what the quotient is.”

And this is the case, though we are also asked to acknowledge that “enough men had gone off to war saying the time for gardening was when the war was over; whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening; because once that cord was broken, the earth would grow hard and forget her children.”


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