Michael K: ‘So obsure as to be a prodigy’
I have decided to write up a short review of each book I happen to read now on. The nature of these reviews will not be a literary criticism of sorts (which I am probably ill-equipped for), but rather a sketch of how it comes across to me and how I relate to the characters and the story, more as an ordinary reader than a critic. This is the first of these reviews. ‘Life & Times of Michael K’ is the story of a gardener, Michael K, and his journey across the country (South Africa) amidst Civil War. J.M Coetzee (the author) explores through ‘K’ the notions of purpose, war, and freedom.
I started reading the book with great expectations, for the cover said it was a Booker, even a Nobel, winner. That the book was a gift from a friend, whose taste for literature I very much trust, was another reason I was excited about it.
Born to Anna K, who worked as a maid, Michael K was born with a hare lip. His mother seems to take care of him more as another chore to be taken care of rather than out of any motherly affection. She doesn’t let him play with other children because their ‘smiles and whispers’ hurt her. Michael, thus, learns to be quiet since childhood. He doesn’t have a chance to interact with kids his age. After he is deemed unfit for regular school (because ‘his mind was not quick’, and he had a deformity), he is sent to Huis Norenius (a special school of sorts) where he learns the basics of ‘reading, writing, counting, sweeping… woodwork and digging’ with other children suffering from some affliction or the other. He moves out of the place to take up a job as a Gardener. His life is filled with endless silence and solitude. He learns of his mother’s sickness, goes to pick her from the hospital, and takes care of her for a while. His mother expresses her desire to move out of the town (engulfed in a civil war) to the rural country of her birth before her death. Unable to get official permits, he takes her on a carriage he makes for her. She dies on the way and Michael takes his mother’s ashes to her place of birth. There he actually takes up gardening, eating whatever he grows from the land.
As I read through his ‘adventures’ I felt a sense of boredom. His quietude was unappealing. His was a character whose story flows from the author’s pen, but the character has no voice of its own. There’s hardly anything substantial he ever says, or does. All he does is to live from one day to the next somehow or the other, barely managing to survive. With no apparent aspirations in life, he seems unconcerned about the business of achieving anything. He’s way too coiled up in an internal life of his own to have any opinion about anything. His simple-mindedness reminds me of Forrest Gump. However, unlike Forrest, he doesn’t have a childhood where he was showered with affection, at least from his own mother. While Forrest’s tale was one of an unlikely and extraordinary adventure, Michael K’s tale is one of an ordinary life untouched by the larger influences of society or even war. I wonder if anyone could make an entertaining movie on Michael K. Probably not, for otherwise, we should have seen one by now. But then, one never knows, there might just be someone somewhere contemplating it. Despite my boredom, I persisted with K’s tale, until I finished Part One of the novel. (‘What a relief!’, I thought.)
After the “drudgery” of wading through Part One of the book, Part Two was a refreshing change. It put things (including the aforementioned “drudgery”) in perspective. Michael K is now an inmate – locked up on suspicion of being an insurgent – in a camp hospital. He is frail, weighing less than forty kilos, and the narrator is the doctor tending to him. It is through the doctor’s narrative that one gains deeper insight into Michael’s character, which doesn’t speak for itself at any stage in the book, not until Part Three really. The doctor realizes how simple-minded (he uses the word, ‘idiot’) Michael is and that he couldn’t have been an insurgent. He was too stupid to be one. Michael can’t eat anything at the hospital because it’s not his kind of food. His recovery seems impossible. The doctor is concerned about him, is trying to save him, but Michael doesn’t seem to get it. All the while he was in bed, Michael kept a packet of dried pumpkin seeds with him. They were precious to him. The doctor describes Michael best
He is like a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is now suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand. A hard little stone, barely aware of its surroundings, enveloped in itself and its interior life.
To Michael’s “Why fuss over me, why am I so important?”, the doctor responds,
You ask why you are important, Michaels. The answer is that you are not important. But that does not mean you are forgotten. No one is forgotten.
Everyone knows there is a war on. Michael responds: ‘I am not in the war.’ He doesn’t get it when the doctor explains that whether he likes it or not, like everyone else he too is in the war. When Michael doesn’t adequately respond or tell his story that the doctor and the guy in charge of the camp want to know, the doctor yells,
Give yourself some substance, man, otherwise you are going to slide through life absolutely unnoticed. You will be a digit in the units column at the end of the war when they do the big subtraction sum to calculate the difference, nothing more. You don’t want to be one of the perished, do you? You want to live on, don’t you?
Truth is, Michael K doesn’t care much for ‘some substance’ or being ‘absolutely unnoticed’. Indeed, he prefers being in the shadow, unnoticed. That is what he has done all his life. He has always been told what to do. And he does whatever he is told to as well as he can. Whenever he is left to think for himself, he feels a blankness inside his head. There are no instructions he has to follow. That is when he learns to make his own decisions which barely go beyond ensuring his survival. As the doctor says of Michael,
I have watched him, I know! He is not of our world. He lives in a world all his own… Extraordinary, though, that you should have survived thirty years in the shadows of the city… No papers, no money; no family, no friends, no sense of who you are. The obscurest of the obscure, so obscure as to be a prodigy… It’s not a question of dying, it’s not that he wants to die. He just doesn’t like the food here. Profoundly does not like it. He won’t even take babyfood. Maybe he only eats the bread of freedom.
Gradually, the purpose of what seemed to be a “drudgery” to me in Part One became clear. It was to emphasize how unremarkable a life K’s was, giving one an almost visceral understanding of its ordinariness and obscurity. That is what allows one to relate to the doctor, and then the doctor’s realization of what K stood for, if only symbolically:
I alone see you as… a human soul above and beneath classification, a soul blessedly untouched by doctrine, untouched by history, a soul stirring its wings within that stiff sacrophagus, murmuring behind that clownish mask. You are precious, Michaels, in your way; you are the last of your kind, a creature left over from an earlier age… We have all tumbled over the lip into the cauldron of history: only you, following your idiot light, biding your time in an orphanage (who would have thought of that as a hiding-place?), evading the peace and the war, skulking in the open where no one dreamed of looking, have managed to live in the old way, drifting through time, observing the seasons, no more trying to change the course of history than a grain of sand does.
Michael K manages to escape the camp and the doctor is left ruminating over things:
Your stay in the camp was merely an allegory, if you know that word. It was an allegory — speaking at the highest level — of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take residence in a system without becoming a term in it… The garden for which you are presently heading is nowhere and everywhere except in the camps. It is another name for the only place where you belong, Michaels, where you do not feel homeless. It is off every map, no road leads to it that is merely a road, and only you know the way.
In Part Three of the book we meet Michael who has returned to his mother’s residence in the city. He, as usual, is unsure of where he is headed. He bumps into strangers who give him some food and sex, neither of which he asks for. This is the part of the novel where K is thinking to himself and arriving at conclusions about his life and its purpose. Indeed, he says, the truth, the truth about me. ‘I am a gardener’…
I am more like an earthworm, he thought. Which is also a kind of gardener. Or a mole, also a gardener, that does not tell stories because it lives in silence… if there was one thing I discovered out in the country, it was that there is time enough for everything.
The doctor’s narrative reveals what makes K the unlikely protagonist of this tale, of an ordinary, yet special, life. The wonderful thing about the book is its insistence on a simple story, powerfully told. If you liked this review, I am sure you’ll enjoy the book.