Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee (1983) is an oddly moving little book about an oddly moving little man. Michael K is an unlikely protagonist. The book begins with his mother’s revulsion at the cleft lip he is born with. Michael spends his school years in an institution, visited by his mother, then becomes a gardener. He cares for his sickly mother until the growing social unrest in their city of Cape Town, South Africa, threatens to take away both their jobs. After a riot in their neighborhood, she persuades him to take her to the countryside where she grew up, but she dies before they arrive.
At this point, Michael is cut loose. The first two-thirds of the book is the oddly clinical chronicling of his long and lonely path. He is picked up as a vagrant and spends time in a camp where he is told he is not a prisoner, but that he will be shot if he tries to leave. He eventually finds the farm where he thinks his mother lived, and secretly plants a pumpkin patch, living like an animal in a burrow, before he is picked up and sent back to camp. Michael wonders why he must do as he is told, but never seems to get emotional. He simply leaves when he can.
Part two starts out clinically as well, as it is told from the point of view of a medic in Michael’s last camp. However, this man becomes moved by Michael’s case, almost in awe of the quiet man’s unreachability, and dreams of following him back to the country when Michael escapes yet again. He even starts addressing his musings directly to Michael:
You have never asked for anything, yet you have become an albatross around my neck. Your bony arms are knotted behind my head, I walk bowed under the weight of you.
I take this to mean that the white colonists have created a huge burden for themselves by taking away the natives’ freedom; each man comes to represent his race. However, one of the remarkable things about Michael K is that Coetzee never once describes a person as black, white, or colored. I can only assume that Michael is black or colored, and that the medic is white. Finally, the very brief part three finds Michael back in Cape Town, and willing to tell his story to other people surviving by their wits, away from the camps.
I am reminded of several other works: first, the South African setting reminds me of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, also about race, and farming. Michael’s last initial, K, as well as the thoughtless bureaucracy that labels this harmless gardener as an arsonist and guerilla, makes me think of Kafka’s The Trial. Finally, the life-or-death bleakness of Michael’s travels through a war-torn landscape reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Like The Road, this novel is moving without being sentimental. I look forward to reading Nobel prizewinner Coetzee’s next Booker winner, Disgrace (1999).