Year of Publication: 1983
Coetzee’s 1983 Booker winning book, Life and Times of Michael K, is yet another cracker of Coetzee’s typical style of writing: sparse and straight-forward narrative. The book: though lean, and at 184 pages, provides enough in-depth picture of the civil war during the apartheid era in South Africa.
The book opens by introducing the main character: ‘The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K when she helped him out of his mother into the world was that he had a hare lip.’ (p3) Michael K, whom the whole story revolves around, is described in great detail about his encounters and challenges during the war.
We are told from the early pages about Michael K’s deformity which eventually saw him out of school and thence committed to gardening work. ‘Because of his disfigurement and because his mind was not quick, Michael was taken out of school after a short trial and committed to the protection of Huis Norenius in Faure, where at the expense of the state he spent the rest of his childhood in the company of other variously afflicted and unfortunate children learning the elements of reading, writing, counting, weeping, scrubbing, bedmaking, dishwashing, basketweaving, woodwork and digging.’ (p4)
At the time of the war, Michael’s mother is ill and he is asked to take her to the countryside where she was born. So Michael’s mother, Anna K, outlines the plan that would eventually see her off to her birthplace. In the plan, she tells Michael to quit his job and take her by train.
As it turns out, Michael will transport his mother in a wheelbarrow because he will not be able to obtain the required permit to travel by train. Along the way, Michael’s mother dies in a hospital at Stellenbosch. She could not see her birthplace, Prince Albert, before she died. Michael will continue the journey with his mother’s ashes and will face several challenges along the way.
Life and Time of Michael K is split into three different parts. There are no chapters. Each part of the book flows easily and the narrative is easy to follow without getting lost along the way.
What kept bubbling up in mind as I kept to the pace at which the narrative was told was the question of the significance of man’s life on earth. Michael K appears to be a mere simple man who loves his work as a gardener. He falls within the lower ladder of the social class which he is aware of: ‘I have become an object of charity, he thought. Everywhere I go there are people waiting to exercise their forms of charity on me. All these years, and still I carry the look of an orphan.’ (p181)