Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Reading J.M. Coetzee's "Life and Times of Michael K" has left me emotionally drained. Maybe not as much as the same author's "Disgrace", but more than almost any other book in my life. Yet I am wildly happy that thanks to my wife's book club I discovered, in my old age, Mr. Coetzee's magnificent prose. This is my fifth book of his and I am planning to ration the remaining ten - too much of a great thing at once may be bad.
Michael K is a poor man with a harelip and a "mind that is not quick", who lives in Cape Town, South Africa, some time in 1970s, during the difficult times of civil war. His sick mother dreams about returning to the country, where she was born, and Michael embarks on an extreme journey to get her there. Because of the war, they can only travel by foot, and Michael builds a kind of wheelbarrow for his mother. The mother dies, Michael is arrested several times, and escapes from various labor and correctional camps. My summary makes the plot sound trivial, while it is actually one of the most moving stories of human plight and suffering that I have ever read. The novel is so rich in themes and the themes are so deep that it would be presumptuous, with my lack of qualifications, to even begin analyzing it, so I will just offer few loose thoughts.
First and foremost, it is absolutely astounding that there is no mention of race in the entire book. Not a single one. To me, this is perhaps what makes the novel so disturbingly powerful. Clearly, skin color must be one of the roots of the civil war, yet it is not even once mentioned by name. Ethnic Studies departments at universities would probably not approve the novel as recommended reading as they tend to prefer having race in the plain view. Mr. Coetzee is more subtle.
To me, this is a book about the fear that the haves have of the have-nots. The fear that "they" will take what "we" have justifies the internal war in the country, persecutions, forced labor camps. Mr. Coetzee also writes about people who are born without a chance in life, destined for poverty, persecution, and suffering. He writes about the people who have no chance of "overcoming", yet they endure.
"The Life and Times of Michael K" is also about a man who wants to be left alone and enjoy the "bounty of the earth". There is some breathtakingly beautiful writing about "a cord of tenderness that stretched from him to the patch of earth", and it is hard not to cry when reading about Michael K's joy when he plants pumpkins, waters them at night, watches them grow, and then eats the first one that ripens.
I have several qualms about the novel. Michael K, despite his "not that quick mind" seems to be capable of metacognition; no doubt Mr. Coetzee has reasons for that and I am just too obtuse to get them. The change of the narrator voice to the "good doctor" in the second part is clever, but it also brings a change in style: from crystal clear and precise to complex and baroque (for instance, a half-a-page long sentence on page 165). It is ridiculous for me to criticize literary structures of Mr. Coetzee; I probably just don't understand the author's intent. But I am going on a limb and rating this beautiful and moving book with only
Four and a half stars.
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