J.M. Coetzee – Life & Times of Michael K

J.M. Coetzee is one of my favorite South African writers. I have a special love for the white voices of South Africa and even though Coetzee has since moved his citizenship to Australia, I still consider him a South African novelist. Coetzee was born in Cape Town in 1940. He moved to London in the early ‘60s and worked as a computer programmer. While in London, he was awarded his Masters of Arts degree based on his work with the novels of Ford Madox Ford. (Sidenote: The Good Solider is one of the best novels ever. Ford’s relationship with Jean Rhys was also pretty awesome for the literary world.) Soon after, he came to the States, where he earned his PhD. He sought citizenship here but was denied due to his role in anti-war protests. He went back to South Africa and started teaching at the University of Cape Town. In 2002, he retired to Australia and in 2006, he became an Australian citizen.

A pretty well lauded novelist, Coetzee is a two-time recipient of the Man Booker Prize [Life &Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999)] and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He’s actually long listed for the 2009 Man Booker Prize award. The shortlist comes out on Tuesday and the winner will be announced in October, but sources indicate Coetzee as a strong favorite. (Summertime seems a bit masturbatory in nature – I’ll read it eventually.)

Coetzee has always been a bit political, but his novels do not read with the same political urgency that laces Gordimer’s works. The two are forever placed side-by-side as the white voices in a black fight. It is a very interesting comparison when one looks at Coetzee’s women vs. Gordimer’s women; I’ll save such interesting reading for a later day.

I recently read the Life & Times of Michael K and found it similar to Disgrace in haunting qualities. I don’t know that it’s as fine tuned as Disgrace or even as Slowman, but there’s no denying that Coetzee was and continues to be a very powerful writer.

The novel is relatively short (under 200 pages) and divided into three sections. The first section is the longest. It is written in third person and follows Michael K. The second section is told in first person through the eyes of a doctor who treats and envies Michael K. The final section is back in third person. The writing in all three sections is brilliantly Coetzee.

The title makes it very clear what the novel is about – Life & Times of Michael K is surprisingly about the life of Michael K. Michael is a nonwhite, slightly slow, man in his early 30s. His cleft lip is the reason he doesn’t even have a face a mother could love. His mother, Anna K, is a very unsympathetic character who is disgusted and embarrassed by her son. She sends him away as a child, but readily calls on him when she needs him. Rather sick and dying, she convinces Michael to take her to her childhood home of Prince Albert. She’s very large and cannot walk so he pushes her in a cart. Shouldering the burden of caring for her with filial love, he sets off. When she dies, he continues the journey, carting her ashes with him.

But the novel isn’t about a son’s love; it’s about a man trying to find himself or lose himself. He’s beaten, robbed, arrested, and nearly starves himself. The most annoying scene for me is when he buries money and walks away. Parts of it reminded me of the L’etranger by Camus, but Michael is such a simpleton that it’s a bit more annoying. I felt no connection to Michael, but Coetzee does that on purpose. The writing is brilliant, but the story is unsatisfying. I do think this is one of Coetzee’s blatantly more political works and it is well-deserving of all the awards bestowed upon it, but I found it a bit too depressing. Everyone should read Coetzee, but not everyone should use Life & Times of Michael K as their starter Coetzee novel.

All this said, if any of you lovely people find an autographed Coetzee work, it’s a sure fired way of forever buying my love. That is all.

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