Life and Times of Michael K
There is no home left for universal souls, except perhaps in Antarctica or on the high seas.
I knew this book had something wonderful in store the first time I read the title. To some it may sound dull, to others mysterious and poetic – and the same goes for the book. I ended being part of the latter and I enjoyed it immensely. Michael K, later known simply as K (my first thought was, of course, Kafka, and apparently the name really is a tribute) leads a peaceful life in Cape Town. Eversince he was born with a hare lip, his mother rejected him, sent him away to an institution to be schooled (a bit like the bleak portraits of English boarding schools) and generally refused to have anything to do with her weak and strange son. All her life, she’s worked as a maid, in her old age, her powers abandon her, she gets ill and can’t do anything but lie in bed. With his dog-like devotion, K agrees to take her back to the province of Prince Albert, so she can die on the farm where she had spent her childhood. It’s all very romantic, but since they can’t obtain a travel permit to leave the capital (war-time measures) they turn into fugitives. On the road, his mother dies and K ends up being a lonely vagrant. All this is narrated from his point of view and, while political details are scarce, on a personal level many scenes are so palpably descriptive that you can’t help feeling involved and moved.
K, lacking the social skills that would help him survive, is caught, lives for a while in a work camp, then escapes – all without a greater plan, all in search of peace and quiet. He tries to build a small garden on an abandoned farm but goes through periods of intense starvation that get him caught again and admitted in a hospital. In a couple of phrases you can easily understand the kind of being K is – aerial, immaterial, almost part of a different world:
He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything 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.
During his hospitalization, one of the doctors is so moved and so intrigued by Michael’s motives – or lack of – and by his story (a story which, once back in Cape Town, he will regret not being able to truly tell) that he ends up dreaming of fleeing all confinements, all responsibilities and running after his now-once-more-escaped patient into the freedom of the unknown. He is the only one who truly sees Michael – for everyone else, just like for his mother, he is a slow weakling whose loss would never be felt – or a servant at best.
I didn’t quite warm up to the ending, for me, Michael should have remained a being above above the carnal, above the earth and the desires we are all made of. Mr Coetzee writing – sparse like the landscape and precise like K’s attempts at a routine – builds up a whole universe of suffering, intolerance, uselessness and pain, a universe to which K is not privy. Like the people at NYTimes say, he’s a bit of a Robinson Crusoe, discovering his own little island in a forgotten garden.