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By J.M. Coetzee
New York: The Viking Press, 1984
ISBN: 0-670-42789-6
184 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2014

During a fictional war in South Africa somewhere in the 1970s we are introduced to Michael K. He was born with a severe cleft lip, and never has it fixed, though it wouldn’t have been much of a medical procedure to do so. His father has died and his mother tries to do what she can, but she’s a domestic servant with little money. Eventually she puts Michael into a home for needy children.

In his teens he finally leaves the children’s home and ends up becoming a gardener, perhaps the only happy days of his life, which seem to have gone on for nearly 20 years. He is a very simple minded man, but he does very much love his plants and is good at what he does. I was often reminded of Chauncey Gardener from Jerzy Kosinski’s BEING THERE. Like Chauncey, Michael does not much understand the everyday world and retreats into his work. He loves his plants and does well with them.

Eventually his mother becomes very ill, and knows she hasn’t long to live. She wants Michael to take back home to a small village outside Cape Town where she grew up. However, with the war going on travel is vigorously curtailed and such a trip will be most difficult. Michael takes apart his bicycle, and with a largish box fixes up a sort of cart to wheel here there. Because of the war one must have travel papers to leave the city. They have none and can’t get them, so they find ways to get around the guards and to get on the road.

However, along the way his mother dies and the hospital where he took her cremates her body and gives the jar of ashes to Michael. Having no idea where to go he decides to continue on and find this village where he’s never been, and take her ashes back to her family.

He does find the village, but his mother’s family is no longer around and no one even seems to know them, making one wonder if he is actually in the correct village. However, the locals fixate on a similar name and tell him that they used to have a farm outside the village, but it is vacant now. Nonetheless, he goes there to see and hoping to meet with family.

The farm is vacant and he breaks into the house and begins to live there, seeking only solitude, and once again being in the only comfortable grounds he knows, the world of growing things, he begins an almost Robin Caruso type primitive life. He lives on birds that he can shoot with a slingshot he makes, and eats grubs and other insects, and begins to try to grow some plants at which he is expert.

However, a late teenage boy, who had been conscripted into the army, deserts and sneaks back to the farm to try to hide out. When he discovers Michael K there he treats him as though he were a servant and begins to control his life. Michael can’t deal with that and he escapes into the outback of the farm, living in a cave where he creates a rudimentary place to live and, having found a few seeds, he begins to grow some plants.

The teen does force him to go into the village to buy them some necessities, but in trying to do so he is captured and made a prisoner of war. He suffers very much in the camp and doesn’t understand what it is all about.

At this stage of the novel one begins to see some strong similarities between Michael K and the Joseph K of Franz Kafka’s THE TRIAL. Michael has no understanding of the war or what being a prisoner is all about, and he is sort of as though he is in a different world than everyone else.

Soon there is a prisoner escape, and he runs off with the others, but he returns to the farm. It is a couple years later than when he was captured and the boy at the farm has gone. Michael doesn’t live in the house for fear of once again being discovered, but builds himself a very primitive shelter in a cave deeper into the farm, and he begins to scratch out a subsistence life while nursing along a very few seeds of various foods that he has found in the old barn and even in the woods.

There seems to be hope for him at this point. He’s withdrawn from a world which he has no use for or no understanding of, but eventually a group of soldiers comes to the farm in order to attack the local village and military there. They do blow up some things and eventually a huge force tracks them to the farm, captures or kills most of them and then discover Michael. He is imprisoned as an enemy, and he seems to lose any will to live; he just doesn’t understand this whole world of war and being a prisoner.

Sometime later there is a major prison break and in the midst of this, Michael himself just walks away and finds his way back to the farm. This time he doesn’t go near the farm house, but retreats to his cave and even disguises it with brush and such and begins to grow a few things. Unfortunately the rebels return, launch and attack and retreat. Once again the soldiers come and he is discovered, almost dead from starvation, and he is placed in another camp.

Up to this point in the novel, well over half the book, it has been Michael’s story, though narrated in the third person. Now there is a shift and the next section is a first person account from the prison physician who gets very interested in Michael and tries to help him and to understand him.

The doctor never really understands him, and I was never really convinced that the reader learns much of anything new about Michael K during this long section. No matter; Michael just can’t cope with the prison camp is on the edge of starvation when there one day he just manages, somehow, to walk away. We never learn how, but he seems to manage to walk himself back to Cape Town and to the area where his mother used to live and where he had worked in the city gardens. But it is really too late for him. He is in the last stages of starvation and no longer has any will to live.

I read the novel as being about so many of us who simply can’t understand or cope with war. It is beyond us, and life, in war, becomes hopeless and meaningless. I would have been much like Michael K, except that I would have had no skills that would have allowed me to live in war time, sort of escaping the war for much of the time. Like others I would probably have “come to terms” somehow with the war, survived or not, but would not have had the heroism, as I saw it, albeit, not a heroism Michael K understood, to have resisted and survived the war for so long.

The novel is bleak, sad, gripping, and so well written as to make this very improbable man seem quite real and understandable.

Bob Corbett


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