Friday, October 02, 2009

The Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee


The K of the title alerts the reader immediately to the nature of this book: for all Coetzee’s realistic language, we’re in Kafkaesque territory, where the aspirations and needs of the individual are subordinated to the imperatives of the state: a study in power and powerlessness, in the way that all of our individual ideals are eventually buried by the impersonal nature of modern life. And so this novel takes place not in South Africa, but anyplace, not during the war but any war, not now or then but anywhen. And Michael K, sunk into silence, is no one. This is the human condition, the human state. Help us all.

Through the novel, Michael K, a man of limited intelligence, finds himself in a variety of prisons, real and metaphorical, enforced or self-imposed. Initially, he and his mother are trapped in the city, where the incessant bad weather is ruining her health, but because they cannot obtain the appropriate passes they cannot return, as his mother wishes, to her childhood homeland, a mere five hours or so distant. Michael seeks to break free by fashioning a carriage for his mother from a wheelbarrow and carrying her home. She dies before they reach their destination and Michael is left alone. He is picked up by the military and pressed into physical labour, clearing blockages on the railways. Later, he is interred in a camp for homeless and workless people, another distinctly Kafkaesque establishment which they are ostensibly free to leave, but to no avail because within a few days they will almost certainly be rounded up and returned. All of this is narrated from a neutral point of view, but adopting the limited comprehension of Michael, a soul lost in a world not of his making or his choosing or his understanding. It is bleak, pitiful, helpless.

Cynthia Ozick, in her much quoted (and, indeed, plagiarised) contemporary review, describes the novel as Huck’s insight, from Jim’s point of view. I don’t agree. Huck observed American society detachedly, seemingly accepting its conventions (the treatment of blacks, for example) while, almost unknown to himself, even in spite of himself, utterly subverting them. There is a sort of unknowing knowingness about Huck, an innate sense of decency that he could neither articulate nor even, probably, identify in himself. (And it is this sort of stuff that saints should be made of, but that’s for another discussion.) But the key is that he did this while living in the world of men. He made mischief from within. Michael K, on the other hand, is empty. Where Huck is a distorting mirror, reflecting the vicissitudes of society tempered by a back-lit softening layer of humanity, Michael is a blank piece of paper. And, as any writer knows, the blank piece of paper is one of the most frightening things there is, because a beautiful thought cannot always survive the process of composition. Michael cannot explain his feelings or justify his actions; he simply responds to whatever it is that triggers his need, permanently, to escape, to find solace in the solitary companionship of nature. He is, almost, Rousseau’s noble savage, beholden to nothing and no-one.

That, however, is only part of the psychology of Michael, for there is still the matter of his mother. The doctor in the hospital cannot unravel Michael’s connection with her, but comes to see her (or her memory) as some sort of malign influence, eating away at Michael’s psyche. It is interesting that Coetzee chose a mother here, and not a father, thus shutting off any Oedipal interpretation. We are not looking at dominance, usurpation, victory; we are nourishing. Michael’s mother must be interpreted, I feel, in the same sense as the earth which so transfixes him: each takes hold of Michael, and he submits to them in turn, asking for nothing from either, but devoting himself entirely to their well-being. And so just as he selflessly bears his mother home so she can flourish and revive in the healthier atmosphere of the veld, a punishing journey from which he receives no reward, he later nurtures food from the dry, unpromising soil, but once it has grown he does not even eat it. It is his mission, his duty, and he fulfils it because he must. Not for nothing does he first of all bury his mother’s ashes in that very soil, and then later, fretting that this is insufficient, dig them up again and instead scatter ‘the fine grey flakes over the earth, afterwards turning the earth over spadeful by spadeful. This was the beginning of his life as a cultivator.’ This, then, is the motherland, the source of it all. In one beautiful passage, Michael’s thoughts are revealed thus:

So what is it ... that binds me to this spot of earth as if to a home I cannot leave? We must all leave home, after all, we must all leave our mothers. Or am I such a child, such a child from such a line of children, that none of us can leave, but have to come back to die here with our heads upon our mothers’ laps, I upon hers, she upon her mother’s, and so back and back, generation upon generation?


It is during this middle section of the novel, with Michael living a wild existence alone in the veld, unencumbered by civilisation or its wars or its prisons or its prejudices, that Michael comes closest to living Rousseau’s ideal existence. He becomes part of the earth – almost literally so, creating for himself a burrow in the ground in which he hides himself from all outsiders – in order to continue his silent commune with mother earth. But, just as Rousseau himself explained, such a noble savagery is not possible: once civilisation has been established it cannot be denied. And so reality intervenes, and Michael’s idyll ends. Firstly, he nearly succumbs to starvation; and then he is captured by government troops and mistaken for a rebel fighter. Once more, Michael is imprisoned, sent to a military hospital where he refuses to eat or even communicate, where his starvation becomes almost total, fatal, before, like a wraith, he disappears once more to a final freedom.

So what is Coetzee’s message? The novel is firstly a meditation on power and corruption and civilisation, from which Michael K chooses to abdicate himself. But, more than that, this is an eco-pastoral novel, part of a cosmic-realist strain which has been emerging over the past forty years or so, in which man is merely a participant in the affairs of the world. There is, in much of this writing – McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, David Guterson et al – a strong dialectic, an Apollonian/Dionysian struggle between Rousseau’s ideal state and Nietzsche’s struggle for an overgoing, a way forward. Coetzee, it seems to me, presents an essentially hopeful view of humanity. There is in us a seed, something good and worthwhile, and it will be nourished and it will bloom. There is much to be deplored in the world – all the things that Michael K rejects – and while, unlike Michael, we cannot simply turn our backs on them, Coetzee still suggests that the power of humanity can prevail. Initially, I found the novel heavy going and Michael’s extreme passivity by turns infuriating and unconvincing, but as it progressed I came to understand him and appreciate him and even, just a little bit, love him.

[There, I hope an even-handed review of Coetzee. Regular readers of this blog will know I am not always charitable about him...]

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