Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Marie's Review: Life & Times of Michael K, by J.M. Coetzee
Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1983, Life & Times of Michael K. is a short yet deeply engrossing novel about a young man, Michael K., wandering alone through the deep countryside of South Africa amidst war and chaos. Michael is a youngish man living with his aging mother in the city as the story opens; hare-lipped, under-educated and somewhat simple, he works as a municipal gardener until his mother takes ill and asks him to take her to the countryside farm where she grew up. Along the way she dies, and Michael is left on his own with little money and few resources. He subsists off the land and passes through a prison-like camp for the poor and dispossessed, all the while trying to maintain his independence and dignity despite a society determined to strip these things away.
The book is divided into three main parts. The first is told entirely from Michael's point of view and Coetzee tells his story meticulously, in great detail and without pause. I thought the lack of chapter breaks would exhaust me but I found his story absolutely riveting. One thing follows on the next, day by day, bit by bit, until Michael has shed almost all the trappings of human society. Then the book changes gear, and Coetzee introduces a new voice and provides an altogether different point of view on Michael. Having spent so much time with him and in such intimate circumstances, it's jarring to have him removed so, pulled away if you will, but I loved this new perspective and the information Coetzee shares with the reader in this way. When we return to Michael in the final section, it's with a renewed appreciation for the challenges he faces and his resources to succeed.
I can't say I was as emotionally challenged by Michael K. as I was by Coetzee's later novel Disgrace (also a Booker winner) but I found Michael K. to be just as riveting, and in some ways, just as draining. We spend so much time in such close proximity to this man and his transformation is so gradual as to be almost unnoticeable, and so convincing as to be inevitable. The excellent second part adds another layer of depth and fascination- not to mention suspense. The fact that Michael's race is never mentioned in a country so charged by racial tension adds another challenge for the reader; Coetzee doesn't make it easy for us to place Michael, or judge him, or anticipate how other characters will do the same. I love how Coetzee can challenge us to think about race without handing us an easy answer. Highly recommended for readers of literary fiction, Coetzee once again proves himself to be a master of it himself.