South Africa’s Civil War: The Life and Times of Michael K

lifeJ.M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K is a deceptive book. It appears to be the narration of a simple-minded man, Michael, as he carries his mother to her hometown in Prince Albert from Cape Town. The novel is set during the turbulent 1970s in South Africa when strong resistance to governmental apartheid caused civil war and increasing restrictions on citizens’ movements and freedoms. Of course, none of this is made clear in the narrative itself as Coetzee very carefully removes any kind of reference to specific events, groups, or places beyond Prince Albert, Cape Town, and Stellenbosch. I may have missed some reference because I am not South African nor do I have any kind of extensive knowledge of apartheid, but the novel itself is very hazy about events and details. In a way, the novel reads like a simple travelogue told by someone with a developmental disability, yet there is a very complex and violent reality beneath it. Michael is put into work or rehabilitation camps at various points because the soldiers believe him to be a rebel. Like Franz Kafka’s The Trial (many have suggested that the K of Michael K is a homage to Kafka), there is a surface to the narrative that hides a complex depth.

This surface level makes the novel an easy read, but I had a sinking suspicion that I missing key phrases and clues scattered throughout its length. Part of this comes from the fact that Coetzee’s narrator employs a limited vocabulary and does not question larger social or political issues. He is a “simpleton” as many characters describe him, yet by the end of the novel he shows a remarkable self-knowledge that belies this label. Many people mistake him for a mute or dumb being, yet he often plays this role because he simply wants to exist in his own way. His own mother, Anna, is disdainful of him and had sent him to an institution until he was old enough to be able to help her around the house.

One of the most interesting things about the novel for me was the way that Michael, on his journey, comes to appreciate and love the veld (the South African prairie). He had worked as a gardener in Cape Town, but on the veld he begins to grow his own food and finds this richly rewarding. So much so that when he is offered food in one of the camps he refuses it because it has not come from the ground. There is an elemental attachment between Michael and the ground that the other characters do not understand. In this sense, Michael begins to appear like a character in a philosophical novel, someone playing a role in a narrative charting out of a philosophical position (like the brothers in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov). The novel itself tends towards the philosophical with its lack of social specificity. There were moments when I felt like I was re-reading  Albert Camus’s The Fall.

Right near the end of the novel, Michael has this thought: “Is that the moral of it all, he thought, the moral of the whole story: that there is time enough for everything’? Is that how morals come, unbidden, in the course of events, when you least expect them?” (249). This might be the core of Coetzee’s reflections on racial conflict in the novel. There is no reference to any character’s colour, so that we never know if Michael, the doctor who narrates the second section, or the soldiers are black or white. I am not a South African scholar, so this is not necessarily a well-formed view. Yet the kind of patience and wisdom evinced by Michael seems like a welcome dose of knowledge in an age when we often act or speak out before we have truly thought through things.

I would highly recommend this novel to any reader. It was thoroughly enjoyable even if I did not pick up the racial context underpinning it.

Coetzee, J.M. The Life and Times of Michael K. London: Secker& Warburg, 1983. Print.


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