loulamac’s #CBRV review #81: Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

michael k

This is a strange, disquieting, upsetting book. It is dream-like and confusing, while being very well-written. Having said that, I didn’t enjoy it. I don’t see how you can ‘enjoy’ reading a book about a brutal world intruding into the existence of a fragile idiot savant. Terrible things happen.

Michael K is a simple man, in every sense of the word. Living in a South Africa riven by civil war, Michael’s in his thirties, and his hare-lip and learning disabilities mean that his existence is limited to his work as a municipal gardener in Cape Town and taking care of his invalid mother. Illness has meant that she can no longer work as a domestic for a rich family who live in a luxury apartment overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and she wants nothing more than to die on the farm where she was born. So with nothing more than a cart Michael has made, very little money and no official papers, the pair set out on their journey. It is winter, and after a short time Anna is in hospital, where she dies, leaving Michael alone. Before long, Michael is picked up by the authorities, and finds himself in a work camp. What follows is a surreal chain of events that sees him escape, nearly starve to death in the mountains, cultivate pumpkins on an abandoned farm, be arrested again and kept in the prison hospital before escaping once more to return to the coast.

The sense of the chasm between the haves and have-nots is intense in this novel. Anna K lives in a small room under the stairs in the apartment block, a room intended for the air conditioning equipment. The book also seethes with injustice, whether it’s the unfairness of Anna K’s life, her ignominious death, the exploitation of refugees in the work camp, or Michael’s incarceration. What’s interesting is that despite the books subject matter, it somehow doesn’t come across as political. Michael isn’t accepting of his fate, but in his repeated escapes from imprisonment and refusal to eat he isn’t making a statement, he’s just doing what feels right for him.

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