Life and Times of Michael K
by J.M. Coetzee (1983)
Vintage (1998)
184 pp

I‘m pretty sure that even though it didn’t win the Best of the Booker J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace was the runner up. To me, anyway, it was the second most substantive book on the shortlist, and it seemed like most people I talked to who didn’t vote for Midnight’s Children voted for Disgrace. At any rate, I thought it might be nice to take another look at an earlier Coetzee novel that won the Booker Prize but that was not considered for the Best of the Booker: Life and Times of Michael K.

Here we meet an apparent simpleton, Michael K. He lives near his mother in a city that is getting torn up by war. Though he’s comfortable in his routine, K decides to hook a cart up to a bicycle so he can take his mother away, back to the village where she grew up. The book is divided up into three parts: Part I is from K’s perspective; Part II is from the perspective of the doctor who treats K; and the very short Part III is again from K’s perspective.

As in Disgrace, Coetzee’s prose is sparse yet elegant, painful, and full of irony.

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.

Unfortunately — and it’s no surprise — K’s plans do not pan out. The consequences are ugly. But somehow, the book is beautiful. This is one of those rare works of art that by showing ugliness gets the reader (who pays attention) to recognize, more deeply, beauty. I’m not talking about catharsis here. This book doesn’t necessarily dwell on the tragedies that occur — they are presented here more like an inconvenience. I’m not sure how it happens, but while reading this book — this book about war and about one man’s physical decline as he attempts to become invisible — during the day I looked around me and saw so many wonderful things. Things looked brighter. I was happier. It was not because I was contrasting my life with that of Michael K. It was because in his life I could see some fundamental beauty which I could then recognize in my own. 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 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 than Disgrace. 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 Lurie is almost completely unlikeable on the surface — 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.

So far, I’ve written mostly about the beauty I found in Michael K. But here I want to look at some of the horrors I encountered along the way. When Michael K’s mother died his silence left me stunned. He was frightened of his mother, and it was interesting that because of this he is almost scared to grieve for her. Though he seems to be running away from the war to Prince Albert, I felt that mostly he was still trying to carry out her will, and not because he loved her just that much but because he was frightened of what would happen to him if he didn’t. This hold she had on him made him fairly impotent when she was alive. Now she’s dead and his body too begins to waste away.

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 below the surface. 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 readers to get what they can from the life of Michael K.

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  1. redheadrambles July 18, 2008 at 9:00 am

    So, if I am to give Coetzee another chance – this is the book to go with then?

  2. Trevor Berrett July 18, 2008 at 11:08 am

    I really enjoyed this book, Redhead, and in a sense I was giving Coetzee another chance since though I liked Disgrace on an aesthetic level, I didn’t particularly like it otherwise. But be warned, even though I spoke mainly of the beauty I sensed in K, it’s pretty full of despair too. As far as tone goes, it’s a lot like Disgrace, but without the bitterness. I also liked Waiting for the Barbarians and I know several people who think that is Coetzee’s best book. Those are the only three I’ve read, and I liked Disgrace least of all, so I definitely recommend giving him another shot!

  3. Mark Thwaite July 18, 2008 at 12:33 pm

    In the Heart of the Country is great. But Youth and Manhood might float your boat too. However, I’m a fan of the later stuff: I think Slow Man and Elizabeth Costello are both pretty remarkable.

    I spoke in favour of Disgrace at the London Literature Festival: in the straw poll taken on the evening it came last!

  4. Trevor Berrett July 18, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    I might be completely off on my assumption that Disgrace was the runner-up then! Perhaps The Siege of Krishnapur? Out of curiosity, Mark, what were the results of the tally on all of the novels in the straw poll?

    Also, thanks for your recommendations, Mark. I am looking forward to getting into more of Coetzee’s works, if for nothing else than to admire the way he can make such beautiful sentences out of small, simple, common words.

  5. Mark Thwaite July 23, 2008 at 7:09 am

    Hi Trevor,

    Oh, I couldn’t give you the results of the straw poll, I’m afraid. It was announced very quickly at the end of the evening and was only a bit of fun anyway. Rushdie won, and I think Farrell and Barker were next best on the night. Certainly, Coetzee and Gordimer came off worst!

    Edna O’Brian advocated Farrell and I think we all half fell in love with her. If she’d’ve advocated Enid Blyton I might’ve voted!

  6. Trevor Berrett July 23, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks for the unofficial results of the unoficial straw poll, Mark! It’s kind of fun still to hear what people liked and didn’t like.

    I wish I could hear Edna O’Brian speak up for The Ghost Road. I’m still not sure what happened to me there.

    By the way, I noticed the Book Depository site your name links to offers free delivery worldwide! What a great thing to discover just before the Booker longlist!

  7. Nathan March 17, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    “Coetzee’s prose is sparse yet elegant, painful and full of irony”

    Great assessment of Coetzee’s style. This book was pretty bleak by the end (and the section from the doctor’s point of view was really haunting). I also really liked Master of Petersburg besides the other mentioned titles.

    Highlighting your old reviews is a great idea.

  8. Trevor March 17, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Thanks Nathan. I haven’t read Master of Petersburg and used to have it close in line in my TBR pile. Now I don’t even know where it is! Thanks for the reminder!

  9. Ronak M Soni December 2, 2009 at 11:27 am

    I remember when my friend was trying to get me interested in this book, he said, “Michael K is the only person, real or fictional, I wouldn’t hesitate to call a free man.”
    That ought to help. I never thought here of ‘descent’.

    Btw, the part you’re looking for when you say that he isn’t just a simpleton is the one where he says that whenever he tried to figure himself out, a vast chasm opened up in front of his brain.

  10. Trevor December 2, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Free man, interesting perspective, but not one I can accept fully, not off the top of my head right now at least. To me Michael K might have been free of the world in some ways — he never really responds to the war, except to leave and try to survive it — but he was never free from his mother. Any freedom from social constraints were, to me, handicaps brought on because of his dependence on her. Without her, he sinks and can barely take care of himself. It’s been a while since I’ve read this, though, so I need a refresher. But it’s such a great book, that would be a pleasure!

  11. Ronak M Soni December 3, 2009 at 3:14 am

    You may well be right. That one sentence may have unduly coloured my reading.
    However, yet again this may be coloured, I seem to remember that he didn’t want to eat, rather than he couldn’t take care of himself.

  12. paul james July 28, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    The Master of Petersberg might be my favourite along with this one

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