J. M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize twice: for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983, and for Disgrace in 1999. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.
Life & Times of Michael K is a short novel in three untitled chapters: a long one, a short one, and an even shorter one. It is literary, not in the writing, which is simple, stark, and unadorned, but in its ideas.
The first long chapter begins with a very short description of Michael K’s undistinguished birth and the subsequent disappointment of his mother because her baby has a cleft lip. It is told in the third person by an unnamed and omnipotent narrator. Michael K’s early life is uneventful and he works in a mediocre job as a gardener. It is clear that the novel is set in a very violent and war-torn South Africa with curfews, gangs, and uncertainty. It seems to be always raining. His mother is desperate to leave Cape-town and return to her hometown of Prince Albert many hundreds of miles to the north. Without money, or the necessary papers – unattainable for Kafkaesque reasons – he attempts to push his mother in a homemade pram all the way north to Prince Albert. His mother dies on the way but Michael K finally manages to arrive at what he believes to be the farm, now deserted, where his mother was born. He tries to live off the land; for his own security he learns to sleep in a hole during the day and to work in his garden at night. He grows pumpkins. He is discovered and abused, escapes to the mountains where he tries to live without leaving a trace. He is hijacked to work for a road-gang, is interned in a work-camp, escapes and is taken to a hospital where he sparks the interest of a doctor.
The second chapter is told in the first person by this unnamed doctor and we see how Michael K, now identified as CM (coloured male ?) but referred to as Michaels, is seen by others. He is an enigma. He refuses to eat, talk, or co-operate. The doctor is tormented with the urge to help him but to no avail. The doctor comes to think that Michaels may have the real answer to living in this particular country at this particular time: living in order not to exist. The doctor is eventually thwarted in his kindly efforts as Michael K escapes.
The last, and shortest chapter, is a return to the third person narrator. Michael K eventually returns to the building in the city where he and his mother used to live. He is befriended by a group of nomads; one of the women has sex with him and he thinks he might even like her, but he continues to reflect on his time in the wilderness; all he would need in the wilderness was his garden, a shaft in the ground, and a teaspoon and string with which he could gather water. Then, “he would say, one can live.”
A happy and fulfilled life need only be concerned with what it is you need to survive, and nothing else. Life isn’t so bad if all you are doing is marking time.
This book is bleak, fascinating, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding – if you stay with it – but a very different book to the mainstream literary works of today.
“Coetzee,” says the writer Rian Malan, “is a man of almost monkish self-discipline and dedication. He does not drink, smoke or eat meat. He cycles vast distances to keep fit and spends at least an hour at his writing-desk each morning, seven days a week. A colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.”
J.M. Coetzee’s latest novel, The Schooldays of Jesus and Late Essays: 2006-2016 are now available from Viking.