Last week I started this blog by reviewing the first Booker Prize nominee I read. Over the past week I have found similarities between my experiences then and my experiences reading Life & Times of Michael K: it is springtime, I found myself reading about war, and there is merely a year separating their publication. But this time I was blown away.
Set in a fictionalised version of South Africa during apartheid, Life & Times of Michael K describes the experiences of Michael K as the country descends into civil war. Although issues of race are never explicitly addressed in the book, it is hard not to read it in the context of apartheid and K does face discrimination. Born with a cleft lip and a naturally slow-talker, K finds himself judged as unintelligent and a number of people, including his own mother, avoid him. The story initially sees K fleeing Cape Town with his abusive but ailing mother, towards whom he shows an intense loyalty. After her death, he journeys to a farm remembered from her childhood, bearing her ashes, and the story follows his attempts to lead a quiet life, eating little and gardening, set against various forms of authority which seek to prevent him from so doing. These come from both official systems (K is set to work on a railway line, detained in an internment camp, and institutionalised in a camp’s hospital) and unoffical systems (K is treated as a servant on the return of the farm’s owner, and pushed into hiding by a rebel group). Authority is portrayed as being unable to comprehend K’s approach to life, which is one of simplicity, and K in turn resists infringements on his freedom, even when that freedom appears to be doing him harm.
I was not initially disposed to like this book. The style of writing felt rather neutral and unengaging and struck me as similar to Kafka but without the clarity of message. However as the novel developed I began to appreciate it more: although told in the third-person, except for a small window of time to which I shall return, the tone reflects K’s personality. As K develops in self-awareness and reflectiveness, so too does the complexity of the writing, and I felt as if I were gaining genuine insight into the character.
By the end I was captivated and intrigued. Moreover, although Coetzee signals the sorts of things we should be considering as important through questions posed by K to himself (and through a section narrated by a medical officer), even now, with time to reflect, I am unsure as to what I should take away from the book. I know it moved me, and that it asked me to reflect on institutions of control and the way in which we seek meaning from life. But I do not feel preached to. I think this is the mark of excellent fiction: it opens up space for reflection rather than closing it down in favour of didacticism.
For this reason, I found the section narrated by the medical officer slightly confusing. The premise is that a severely malnourished K is being treated within the hospital and refusing food as he wishes to live on his own terms outside the camp. The medical officer starts to understand that K has no role in the civil war and that his desired way of life is a preferable option. He also starts to treat K’s actions in an allegorical sense, interpreting wider ideas from K about the way people should live. This explicit stating of ideas seemed out of place with the rest of the novel, and unnecessary. The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether we should interpret the medical officer’s attitude in a different way: given that the narrative has made it clear that K’s life has no grand plan to it, and even K does not know why he desires what he does, the medical officer’s wish for an allegorical meaning has no root in reality. It is possible that the desire for a message which underpins my previous paragraph is being held up to scrutiny and shown to be futile.
Possibly the most striking feature of the book is the compassion displayed towards almost all involved. Nobody is demonised, people from many walks of life are presented as vulnerable (comparisons with children being common) and Coetzee neglects to mention who is on which side (except for the medical officer who is “fighting this war so that minorities will have a say in their destinies”). It provides a marvellous exploration of humanity which I find impressive.