“Life and Times of Michael K” by J.M. Coetzee


Part 1: a continuous running narration spanning 126 pages with no breaks- no chapters or sub-sections. It is written in third person describing the life of Michael K briefly as a child and then a gardener in Cape Town but mostly his life after he leaves Cape Town and learns to cope with living in the wild without money and hiding away from policy and army.

Part 2: spanning 40 pages, written in first person from the point of view of a Pharmacist turned makeshift medical officer at the Kenilworth camp.

Part 3: spanning 20 pages again in third person describing the life of Michael K as he returns to Cape Town post running away from the camp.

Michael’s hare mouth at birth set him apart from others and made him an outsider, an insignia of his isolation. His insecure mother institutionalized him at a home for special children, making him an outsider forever. He considered the institution as his first camp and perhaps where he came to value his freedom above everything else. It paved the way for his enduring strength that could bear and overcome all obstacles on his road to freedom. He was captured and put in camps twice as an adult but both times he ran away, leaving behind plethora of people who clung on to the camps for the vestiges of security of civilization or the life they had known. He preferred to break away and live in a hole in the ground, gardening at night and sleeping his time away, surviving days in a row without food. He through his gardening learns to live completely independent of society, but the society doesn’t leave him alone.

His love for freedom rubs on to the Pharmacist (who is characterized as a male by Coetzee but I can picture the character only as a woman owing to the ultra-sensitivity of the character towards Michael K.)

 “I was wasting my life by living it from day to day in a state of waiting that I had in effect given myself up as a prisoner to this war.”….. “as living in suspension, alive but not alive while history hesitates over what course it would take.”

Michael is a simpleton unaware of the ways of the world but yet his thoughts are highly perspicacious:

“He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind, but as a speck upon the surface of an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant-feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust.”

“A man must live so that he leaves no trace of his living.”

Coetzee refrains from any direct political references save for one line in Part 2:

“Also,” I said, “can you remind me why we are fighting this war? I was told once, but that was long ago and I seem to have forgotten.”
“We are fighting this war,” Noël said, “so that minorities will have a say in their destinies.”

Besides this line the exact nature of the civil war is never alluded to and nor does he not mention the race of any of his characters. Much is left to the reader’s interpretation. He has included the name Kenilworth and a cricket game, silent reflections of the vestiges the British colonialism has left behind across half the world.

This is a brilliant novel that reveals disturbing details about the South African apartheid war, of how deeply ingrained the war was in the society that even in the wilderness one couldn’t live at peace and ran the risk of getting captured by army or policy and locked away into camps.

To me, Michael K. also reflects a lot of Coetzee or whatever I have read about him, particularly his abstinence from society and his dogged silence.

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A dreamer. An intellectual, spoiled by the world of literature trying to find sanity through traveling and expression through Visual Art and writing! Hope you like my expressions on this blog!!

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