Life & Times of Michael K
By J.M. Coetzee
This is me talking out of my ass...
Often the most powerful, most blisteringly conscious novels are written from the perspective of the naive. Whether it is the innocent naivety of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird or the simplistic worldview of Ignatius J. Reilly in a Confederacy of Dunces, or the practical clarity of Yossarian in Catch-22, naivety illuminates the world in a way that erudite characters often cannot achieve. Characters of limited intellectual capacity have a way (albeit filtered through the erudite minds of great writers) of boiling life's complexities down to simple concepts and reflecting them back on the reader as absurdities or truisms or whatever the writer wishes to convey. It is often only through the window of simplicity that we can she the world for what it really is and this particular literary convention is one of the great gifts that novels give humanity.
Conversely, J.M. Coetzee has made a career of reflecting on larger social issues, chewing the fat under the guise of simple characters on flat, 2-dimentional settings. In Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee paints a bleak, featureless, Cormac McCarthy-esque landscape in which to wax intellectual on the subject of imperialism. Coetzee thrives in stripped down settings and simple characters. It's no wonder that he is the first person to win the Man Booker Prize twice. Literary critics seems to love simple narratives that involve simple characters. I'm not here to argue with the critics. It's a solid literary device. See Dent, Arthur.
In J.M. Coetzee's Nobel Prize (and Booker Prize) winning novel Life & Times of Michael K, the reader is presented with just such a character. In Michael K, Coetzee has created a character designed exclusively to suffer for the greater good of his reader. Set in apartheid era South Africa, Michael K is a simple man born with a cleft lip who simply wants to help his mother return to her childhood home in Prince Albert in the country before she dies. Unfortunately he attempts this journey in the midst of a war and the trip is rife with dangers. When his mother dies mid-voyage, Michael oscillates between living a life of absolute freedom on the veldt and confined to labor camps as well as living in a state that can neither be called living nor dead. In both circumstances Michael suffers immensely, but only in absolute freedom is truly happy and bears his suffering willingly.
By stripped clear so much of the clutter that the average person's life collects, Coetzee is free to examine man at it's very foundation. Gone are the articles of civilization and the social mores that bind us and dictate kurt behavior. In Michael K, Coetzee has created a character devoid of family and social pressure and completely without material wants and needs. From here, Coetzee is free to use Michael as a vehicle in which to explore the essence of human nature, specifically the notion of freedom.
Freedom is the central theme of Life & Times of Michael K. It is through the clear lens of Michael, a sexless, apolitical entity that we are able to examine the nuances of freedom vs. confinement. In this respect, Coetzee answers the question: is it better to live an indentured life of plenty or a meager life completely unfettered by the demands of society. In true Coetzee fashion, he avoids the temptation to guide the reader's opinion, leaving the narrative open-ended and entirely open for discussion.
There has been much discussion about Michael K's last name and whether or not it is indeed Kafka. Certainly the parallels are there. In fact, the novel bears striking resemblances to The Trial and the themes and tone of the novel seems almost lifted verbatim from its pages. This could have been a travesty, but assuming that Coetzee generated parallels between Life & Times of Michael K and The Trial on purpose, one can rest assured that Kafka's essence is in capable hands.
Bear in mind, if you are looking for a light summer read, steer clear. Life & Times of Michael K is a heavy, thought provoking novel rife with symbolism and heavy with metaphor. I read it as an allegory on the nature of freedom vs. incarceration but I imagine it could be read in a number of different ways (as a parable on race relations, for example). The narrative itself is slow and plodding and doesn't really move much at all, but if it is simply plot that you desire, then you've come to the wrong place if you've come banging on J.M. Coetzee's door. To be sure, this is without a doubt a work of literary genius and deserves to be savored like a fine wine rather than devoured like a Big Mac after a 12 hour shift in the mines.
There is a profound wisdom to be found within Coetzee's work and a good portion of that manifests itself within this novel. The novel is deserving of all the accolades it has been afforded.