“There is no home left for universal souls, except perhaps in Antarctica or on the high seas.”
I read J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K in one go. It has been a disturbing, beautiful and emotional experience. It has made a deep impression on me.
The story takes place in an unreal South Africa which is torn by civil war. Michael K, a man deformed by a hare lip, a disfigurement which makes people look down on him, works as a gardener in the De Waal Park in Cape Town. One day his mother, who is suffered from edema, calls him to collect her from the hospital. Moving with difficulty, she asks Michael to return her to the farmland of her girlhood, in Prince Albert. Facing a real possibility of being made redundant, Michael quits his job and decides to made the trip, convincing himself that ”he had been brought into the world to look after his mother.”
After the death, on route to Prince Albert, of his mother, Michael decides to go anyway. He finds the farmland, or one that resembles his mother’s description. It is a desolate and abandoned land but he stays, and there in the veld, he spends his days sowing and tending a few pumpkin seed and a pair of watermelons. One day the soldiers arrive and Michael is taken prisoner. He is transferred to a “rehabilitation” prison camp for deserted soldiers set up on a former race course in Cape Town. And then, one night, he disappears.
Life and Times of Michael K is an austere, marvellous and allegorical novel, strongly located in the specific South African context. It is deeply political; it exploits the ‘unreality’ of South African state for change. There is a sense of meaningfulness throughout the book. At the same time, an irony, a search for freedom, fuelled by Michel’s desire to live in the moment and to be the lord of his own life, even if this cause him a lot of suffering. It is a visceral experience, instinctive, not rational, and therefore impossible for the others to understand. All, but one. The doctor at the prison camp develops a personal relationship with Michael, something he has never done before with an inmate, and slowly, as time passed, he began to see,
“…… the originality of the resistance you offered. You were not a hero ad did not pretend to be, not even a hero in fasting. In fact, you did not resist at all. When we told you to jump, you jumped. When we told you to jump again, you jumped gain. When we told you to jump a third time, however, you did not respond but collapsed in a heap; and we could see, even the most unwilling of us, that you had failed because you had exhausted your resources in obeying. So we picked you up, finding that you weighting no more than a sack of feathers, and set you down before food, and said: Eat, build your strength, so that you can exhaust you again, obeying us. And you don’t refuse. You tried sincerely, I believe to do as you were told. You acquiesced in your will, but your body baulked. Your body rejected the food we fed you and you grew thinner. Why? I asked myself: Why will this man not eat when he is plainly starving? Then I watched you, day after day, I began to understand the truth. That you were crying secretely unknown to your conscious self for a different kind of food, food that no camp can supply.”
The Life and Times of Michael K won the 1983 Booker Prize.