Life and Times of Michael K
”How many people are there left who are neither locked up nor standing guard at the gate?”
JM Coetzee’s honest, compelling and brave novel reminded me of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, and it reminded me of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The writing has the same kind of quality of these other novels, in that it takes a simple story about a simple man and elevates it by way of language into a terrifying masterpiece. Huckleberry Finn is in there, too, of course, watching the river flow.
This was the beginning of his life as a cultivator. On a shelf in the shed he had found a packet of pumpkin seeds, some of which he had already idly roasted and eaten; he still had the mealie kernels; and on the pantry floor he had even picked up a solitary bean. In the space of a week he cleared the land near the dam and restored the system of furrows that irrigated it. Then he planted a small patch of pumpkins and a small patch of mealies; and some distance away on the river bank, where he would have to carry water to it, he planted his bean, so that if it grew it could climb into the thorntrees.
For the most part he was living on birds that he killed with his catapult. His days were divided between this form of hunting, which he carried on nearer the farmhouse, and the tilling of the soil. His deepest pleasure came at sunset when he turned open the cock at the dam wall and watched the stream of water run down its channels to soak the earth, turning it from fawn to deep brown. It is because I am a gardener, he thought, because that is my nature. He sharpened the blade of his spade on a stone, the better to savour the instant when it clove the earth. The impulse to plant had been reawoken in him; now, in a matter of weeks, he found his waking life bound tightly to the patch of earth he had begun to cultivate and the seeds he had planted there.
There were times, particularly in the mornings, when a fit of exultation would pass through him at the thought that he, alone and unknown, was making this deserted farm bloom But following on the exultation would sometimes come a sense of pain that was obscurely connected with the future; and then it was only brisk work that could keep him from lapsing into gloominess.
The borehole, pumped dry, yielded only a weak and intermittent stream. It became K’s deepest wish for the flow of water from the earth to be restored. He pumped only as much as his garden needed, allowing the level in the dam to drop to a few inches and watching without emotion as the marsh dried up, the mud caked, the grass withered, the frogs turned on their backs and died. He did not know how underground waters replenished themselves but knew it was bad to be prodigal. He could not imagine what lay beneath his feet, a lake of a running stream or a vast inner sea or a pool so deep it had no bottom. Every time he released the brake and the wheel spun and water came, it seemed to him a miracle; he hung over the dam wall, closed his eyes, and held his fingers in the stream.
He lived by the rising and setting of the sun, in a pocket outside time. Cape Town and the war and his passage to the farm slipped further and further into forgetfulness.
When the novel opens Michael K is thirty-one years old and living with his mother. His is the story of an innocent who wants to be left alone a survivor in a world gone bad. Coetzee describes a social and political environment which can never be redeemed. Our only hope is to abandon it.
Michael K is treated as a criminal by the State, in fact by almost everyone he meets. He has a hare lip and is regarded as slow. As an infant he is not nourished at his mother’s breast, he is interned in a special school for simpletons, later he gets to know prison camps, he is hunted and harassed by the police, the army, and passing thugs. He learns to starve. His crime was being born.
This morning without notice, a convoy of trucks arrived bringing four hundred new prisoners, the batch held up first at Reddersburg for a week and then on the line north of Beaufort West. All the time we were playing games here, and spending time with girlfriends, and philosophizing about life and death and history, these men waited in cattle trucks parked in sidings under the November sun, sleeping packed against one another in the cold of the highland nights, let out twice a day to relieve themselves, eating nothing but porridge cooked over thornbush fires beside the tracks, watching cargoes more urgent than themselves rumble past while the spider spun his web between the wheels of their home.
This is not a happy or easy novel, but a rewarding one, and certainly worth spending time with.