Review: Life & Times of Michael K, by J. M. Coetzee

Michael K was always a bit of an outcast.  He was born with a hare lip, and sent to a sort of institution during his school-age years.  His mother Anna worked as a domestic for a wealthy family, but when she became ill, Michael left his job as a gardener to care for her.  And when Anna expressed a desire to visit her birthplace in the countryside, Michael attempted to make her dream come true.  Government beaurocracy conspired against them, and they attempted to make the journey on foot.  Anna’s illness prevented her from completing the trip, leaving Michael to go it alone.

Much of this book describes Michael’s solitary journey, his attempts to live off the land, his experiences in various interment camps, and his difficulty dealing with mainstream society.  Michael’s appearance keeps people at a distance,  his naivete makes him vulnerable, and he is unable to function as part of a group.  He continually shuns food and shelter, preferring to live alone out in the open, surviving only on plants and grubs.

Coetzee’s spare prose often delivered compelling messages that made me stop and think:

He thought of the pumpkin leaves pushing through the earth. Tomorrow will be their last day, he thought: the day after that they will wilt, and the day after that they will die, while I am out here in the mountains. Perhaps if I started at sunrise and ran all day I would not be too late to save them, them and the other seeds that are going to die underground, though they do not know it, that are never going to see the light of day. There was a cord of tenderness that stretched from him to the patch of earth beside the dam and must be cut. It seemed to him that one could cut a cord like that only so many times before it would not grow again. (p. 65-66)

Even though it was all rather bleak, I was fascinated by Michael’s journey.