Tuesday, August 25, 2009

234. Life & Times of Michael K. – J.M. Coetzee

July 2009
History: This book was written in 1983. Some commentators notice a connection between the character Michael K and the protagonist Josef K. in The Trial by Franz Kafka. The book also bears many references to Kafka, and it is believed, "K" is a tribute to Kafka.
Plot: The novel begins with Michael K, an institutionalized simpleton who works as a gardener in Cape Town, South Africa. Michael tends to his mother who works as a maid to a wealthy family. Eventually, the city breaks out in a massive warlike riot, and Michael’s mother becomes very sick. Michael decides to quit his job and escape the city to return his mother to her birthplace of Prince Albert .
Michael finds himself unable to obtain the proper permits for travel out of the city so he builds a shoddy rickshaw to carry his mother, and they go on their way. Soon after escaping, Michael’s mother dies in a hospital. He lingers for some time, carrying his mother’s ashes around with him in a box. Finally, Michael decides to continue on his journey to Prince Albert to deliver his mother’s ashes. Along the way, though, he is detained for not having the required travel papers, thus being assigned to work detail on a railway track.
After his job on the railway track is finished, Michael makes his way to the farm his mother spoke of on Prince Albert. The farm is abandoned and desolate. Soon, Michael discovers how to live off the land. However, when one of the relatives of the real owners of the farm arrives, he treats Michael like a servant. Michael dislikes this treatment so he escapes up into the mountains.
In the mountains, Michael goes through a period of starvation while he becomes aware of his surroundings. In his malnourished state he finds his way down to a town where he is picked up by the police and is sent to work on a work camp. Here, Michael meets a man named Robert. Robert explains that the workers in the camp are exploited for cheap labor by the townspeople. Eventually, there is an attack on Prince Albert and the workers of the camp are blamed. The local police captain takes over and Michael escapes.
Michael finds his way back to the farm but soon feels claustrophobic within the house. Therefore, he builds a shelter in the open where he is able to watch his garden. Rebels come out of the mountains and use his garden. Although Michael is angered by this he stays in hiding. Michael becomes malnourished and delirious again because he has not come out of hiding. He is found by some soldiers and is taken to a rehabilitation camp in Cape Town.
At the rehabilitation camp, a doctor becomes interested in Michael. He finds Michael’s simple nature extremely fascinating and finds him to be unfairly accused of aiding rebels. Michael becomes very sick and delirious because he refuses to eat. The doctor tries to understand Michael’s stubborn ways while attempting to get Michael released. However, Michael escapes on his own.
Upon his escape, Michael meets with a group of nomadic people who feed him and nourish him back to health. Also during this section he meets a women who has sex with him, later we see him attracted to women for the first time. Ironically, he returns to the apartment where he and his mother lived in Cape Town, the same apartment and city he had tried to escape some time ago. Michael reflects on the garden he made in Prince Albert.
Review: The deadpan tone of the narrative creates a vacuum that sucks you along, and as you get more involved you grow to identify with the stoic hero as the ultimate ''escape artist'' in a world of violent and brutal contention.
There are stabbing touches of irony in the scenes where police put down Cape Town rioters from apartment buildings or when someone wearing a San Jose State sweatshirt shows up as a volunteer-helper in what for all intents is a concentration camp. Not merely stabbing is the irony that Michael K - trying to survive by raising pumpkins and living in a hole in the ground on an abandoned farm - is assumed to be part of a mountain guerilla force and is tortured for information. Then there is the shift in the second of the three sections to the narrative point of view of a doctor in a hospital where Michael K shows up. The doctor sees meaning in this strange little hair-lipped figure who, like Melville's Bartleby, refuses all offers to help him survive. The doctor makes imaginary speeches to the man he insists on referring to as ''Michaels''. Finally, there is a problem raised by Michael's supposed slow-wittedness. In fact he is not in the least slow- witted. He is clever with his hands; he often perceives other people's motives even before they do, and he is, as the doctor-narrator of Part Two keeps pointing out, a genius of an escape-artist. Of course, it is certain Cape Town authorities who once perceived Michael K as feeble-minded. The narrator knows better, and this becomes still another source of the novel's irony.
Still, often when I read yet another passage that implicitly celebrates Michael's cleverness, I found myself wishing I could see him as those anonymous Cape Town authorities had done. One trouble with the novel is that the omniscient narrator tells us too much about what is going on inside Michael's head.
Opening Line: “The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K. when she helped him out of his mother into the world was that he had a hare lip.”
Closing Line: “He would clear the rubble from the mouth of the shaft, he would bend the handle o the teaspoon in a loop and tie the string to it, he would lower it down the shaft deep into the earth, and when he brought it up there would be water in the bowl of the spoon; and in that way, he would say, one can live.”
Quotes: “When he heard the rumble of an approaching convoy he would creep away onto the bushes, though he wondered now, within his filthy clothes and his air of gaunt exhaustion, he would not be passed over as a mere foot loose vagrant from the depths of the country, on benighted to know that one needed papers to be on the road, too sunk in apathy to be of harm.”
Rating: Okay

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