This short, powerful novel works as an excellent introduction to Coetzee's fiction while connecting him thematically to other great writers.
On its face The Life and Times of Michael K. follows the journey of a man living in war-torn South Africa. After losing his mother, the slightly disfigured and mildly retarded titular character drifts between homelessness and internment camps before deciding to scratch out a solitary life in the African grasslands. He only succeeds for so long when he is picked up by the army and sent to be rehabilitated despite his wishes otherwise.
A narrator/doctor admires and pities Michael, so he does nothing to prevent his escape or attempt to recapture him. Michael ends the novel shunning the company of Cape Town vagrants and dreaming of his life in the wilderness where he remembers being in touch with the flora and the land.
Life worth Living
A recurring theme in Coetzee’s novel is determining the value of a human life. Frequently Michael is judged to be harmless or worthless because he is a man of little means or prospects. An unskilled laborer and homeless for much of the novel, he is seen as a social burden or parasite, though even he sees how those that call him a parasite live off his backbreaking work.
On his own Michael is a competent gardener and proficient at fixing simple machines. It is these overlooked talents that allow him to survive off the land for stretches of time when many other allegedly superior characters would have died from exposure, starvation, or shame. This life—alone and close to the earth—is what Michael comes to see as the best and is what he aspires to once he is forcibly removed from it. A measure of irony comes from the fact that other people need Michael, despite not respecting him, yet Michael could get along without other people.
Reflections of Michael K.
Coetzee’s skillful writing keeps his character accessible and understandable in nearly every situation. The novel has tones similar to Forrest Gump but instead of being present for many seminal, cultural events Michael is self-effacing and desires to withdraw from a chaotic world. In this way Coetzee focuses on Michael’s developing interior life rather than any engagement with the surrounding world.
Saint of Vegetation
Michael’s care for the earth and what grows from it also makes him a protagonist in touch with the natural world rather than the oppressive society that surrounds him. This development makes Michael a character in the line of Joseph from John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown or even Wang in the early chapters of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. Michael’s baffling ability to survive alone of what little he grows in the African veldt renders him almost mythological, but he is humanized by his thoughts to which Coetzee grants the reader full access.
Coetzee, J. M. Life and Times of Michael K. New York: Penguin, 1985.
© 2009 Seth Tomko