Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

Readers will be drawn quickly into this story of a man caught up in the tangle of personal and societal challenges and his struggle to survive on his terms. Writers will want to read with an eye as to how J.M. Coetzee writes an emotionally moving story without a trace of sentimentality. There is nothing superfluous in Coetzee’s narrative; it is the stark story of one man’s journey (although perhaps an allegory too).

J.M. Coetzee creates an entire life, beginning with Michael’s birth, keeping a quick pace, yet giving readers all the information they need to develop their own ideas about Michael K and his life. We first meet the infant, born with a hair lip, whose mother “shivered to think what had been growing in her all these months.” Then, “Because of his disfigurement and because his mind was not quick, Michael was taken out of school after a short trial” and sent to a state institution until he was fifteen. “Because of his face K did not have women friends. He was easiest when he was by himself.” We learn all of this, starkly, and without elaboration, in three pages. When the narrative opens, Michael is working as a gardener. His dying mother wants to go home to a childhood farm on the veld. Michael, dutiful son, attempts to obtain travel documents, which never arrive. He quits his gardening job at Wynberg Park, City of Cape Town, and they leave without the required papers. On foot, pushing his mother in a make-shift cart, the journey begins.

In Life & Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee has taken one damaged man and written a lucid, spare story of his determination to live his life his way. True to the best character driven stories, Michael changes. Mid-way through the story, Michael realizes it.

When he thought of Wynberg he thought of an earth more vegetal than mineral, composed of last year’s rotted leaves and the year before’s and so on back till the beginning of time, an earth so soft that one could dig and never come to the end of the softness; one could dig to the centre of the earth from Wynberg Park, and all the way to the centre it would be cool and dark and damp and soft. I have lost my love for that kind of earth, he thought, I no longer care to feel that kind of earth between my fingers. It is no longer the green and the brown that I want but the yellow and the red; not the wet but the dry; not the dark but the light; not the soft but the hard. I am becoming a different kind of man….

Nevertheless, Michael’s limitations impede him: “Always, when he tried to explain himself to himself, there remained a gap, a hole, a darkness which his understanding baulked, into which it was useless to pour words…. His was always a story with a hole in it: a wrong story; always wrong.” Like the best protagonists, Michael is aware and flawed too. But eventually, he does understand something essential in his own immutable way:

When my mother was dying in hospital, he thought, when she knew her end was coming, it was not me she looked to but someone who stood behind me: her mother or the ghost of her mother. To me she was a woman but to herself she was still a child calling to her mother to hold her hand and help her. And her own mother, in the secret life we do not see, was a child too. I come from a line of children without end.

Michael K is a most memorable character. J.M. Coetzee has won two Booker Prizes (1983 and 1999) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (2003), among other honours and awards. If you “Read Like a Writer,” you can read no-one better than Coetzee, and if you creating a character-driven story, take note of Michael’s path.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Life & Times of Michael K

If you like this story, you may also enjoy reading my review of Nadine Gordimer’s None to Accompany Me


A Woman’s—South Africa’s—Seasons

Ben believes their marriage was a failure. Vera sees it as a stage on the way, along with others, many and different. Everyone ends up moving alone towards the self.

Ostensibly, None to Accompany Me is a political story, a story of the unraveling of white South Africa and the turmoil that spreads from the black townships, a story toward integration (of a sort), and toward the time when Nelson Mandela will become president (although his name is never mentioned). But, at the heart of the story, is a woman called Vera when she is at home and with friends, Mrs. Stark when she’s in the context of the Foundation. In this way, we see her as lover, mother, wife, friend and as dedicated, driven, compassionate, and fearless.

The trajectory of Vera Spark’s life parallels the militants’ passion during the long period between the official legislation (1991) and the actual creation of the new government. It is during this period of often violent change that the narrative unfolds giving readers an intimate look of the ups and downs of political life as the exiles and prisoners return and the personal toll of shifts and accommodations. We share Vera’s story as we weave through this morass toward change and freedom and the impact on lives.

At one point, on a trip into the townships, she and her black co-worker are shot, she in the leg. Ben, her husband, fears losing her, and says, “I couldn’t live without you.”

She could not see the violence at the roadside as evidence of her meaning in his [Ben’s] life. She could not share the experience with him on those terms. She was not responsible for his existence, no, no, love does not carry that covenant; no, no, it was not entered into in the mountains [where their affair began], it could not be, not anywhere. What to do with that love. Now she saw what it was about, the sudden irrelevant question, a sort of distress within herself, that came to her from time to time, lately.

Gradually, she comes to a realization (or admission) of what propelled the love affair with Ben and other “indiscretions.” The fallout of that creates a schism between them, as other holes develop between the politicians—old guard and new. In None to Accompany Me we find both personal and social transformation.

Nadine Gordimer (1954-2001), winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (1991) among many other awards, knows of what she speaks, having been an activist and member of the National African Congress (ANC). Her lyrical—and at times poetical—writing focuses on apartheid and South Africa without a trace of the tract that slips into the stories of lesser writers. Although she takes on a political cause, her stories are literary, giving us fully realized characters that we care about and whose journeys keep us turning pages. None to Accompany Me is prefaced with the words of Bashō: “None to accompany me on this path:/Nightfall in Autumn.” Gordimer takes us through the seasons of a woman as she demystifies South Africa’s political transition from apartheid.

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Available through many libraries or through your local bookstore or online; this link is for the audio edition: None to Accompany Me