The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

‘I have been all over,’ said K.’

In a South Africa torn by civil war, Michael K sets out to take his ailing mother back to her rural home.  Born with a disfiguring harelip which has not been corrected, Michael is nearly mute.  He is intellectually slow and spent his childhood in a home.  He tries to obtain the necessary permits to travel with his mother but sets out when it becomes clear that bureaucratic delay or indifference mean that the permits are not going to arrive in time.  He must: he and his mother cannot stay where they were. So, without any permit, Michael and his mother set out.  She is on a barrow he has made.  But she dies, and Michael is ill-equipped to deal with life alone.  He keeps travelling because he wants to return his mother’s ashes to her village.

‘He did not know what was going to happen.  The story of his life had never been an interesting one; there had usually been someone to tell him what to do next; and now there was no-one, and the best thing seemed to be to wait.’

Michael takes up residence in an abandoned farmhouse and starts to grow melons and pumpkins. He dreams of being able to stay.  He moves on again, when a relative of the farm owner, AWOL from the military, arrives.  And, from the cave where he takes shelter, he is arrested by the security forces.

Michael wants to be free.  And if he cannot be bodily free then he will be free of his body.  Michael stops eating: the only control he can exert over self and situation.  He is a coloured person with a disability, he is unable to speak clearly for himself, but even if he could, I doubt that anyone in power would have listened.  The bureaucrats turn Michael into Michaels: his identity does not matter to them.  They have already fitted him into the space they think he should occupy: a coloured man assisting the rebel forces.

‘No-one knew where he was from.’

I found this novel incredibly sad.  Michael has no power to change his life, and no-one will allow him to live on his own terms.  This is made worse by the fact that Michael’s ability to communicate is affected by his hare lip.  Because his palate is intact, the lip could have easily been repaired.  But there is no place, in the world of this novel, for Michael. 

This novel won the Booker Prize in 1983, at a time when apartheid was still very much in place in South Africa.  The situation in South Africa may have improved since, but the world is full of Michael Ks.  People whose differing disabilities are magnified by those of us unable to see the world through different eyes and to make allowances accordingly.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith