Thursday, May 1, 2008

Trevor's Review of Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K

"The damp weather was no good for her, nor was the unending worry about the future. Once settled in Prince Albert she would quickly recover her health. At most, they would be a day or two on the road. People were decent, people would stop and give them lifts."

This is one of those rare works of art that by showing ugliness gets the person paying attention to recognize, more deeply, beauty. I'm not sure how it happens, but while reading this book, this book about a war and about one man's physical decline as he attempts to become invisible--I looked around me and saw so many wonderful things. I would read the sad way Michael K passes time while alone or in captivity and feel some fundamental truth, some elemental beauty even among the ugliness of human nature. For example, this simple passage from early in the book is simple, its momentary bliss is rare, yet for all its simpleness it shouts a message louder than the ravages going on around the characters:

"[H]e was again able to take his mother, wrapped in coat and blanket, for a seafront ride that brought a smile to her lips."

I liked this book more than Coetzee's Disgrace. In both Coetzee has a way of using simple words in seemingly simple sentences, coming up with a fabulously understated style:

"He had a feeling that he was losing his grip on why he had come all these hundreds of miles, and had to pace about with his hands over his face before he felt better again."

But Life and Times of Michael K felt more compassionate. Because Coetzee had to recognize the fundamental beauty I talked about earlier, I felt more drawn to K and to the writer. Simple passages like the one here made me feel like Coetzee was not merely defending a character--as I felt in Disgrace, where the character was almost completely unlikeable--but also working hard to get the reader to love a character that he loved.

"There was a cord of tenderness that stretched from him to the patch of earth beside the dam and must be cut. It seemed to him that one could cut a cord like that only so many times before it would not grow again."

Michael K is deceptively complex. He seems simple. He barely talks. The simple style of the novel strengthens this feel. However, like the novel itself, there is much more to Michael K. The doctor, who tells Part II, is one of the only characters who recognizes Michael K as something more than a simpleton. His revelation is probably flawed too, but that leaves more room for the reader to get what they can from the life of Michael K.

4 stars out of 5.

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