In a South Africa torn by civil war, Michael K sets out to take his mother back to her rural home. On the way there she dies, leaving him alone in an anarchic world of brutal roving armies. Imprisoned, Michael is unable to bear confinement and escapes, determined to live with dignity. Life and Times of Michael K goes to the centre of human experience - the need for an interior, spiritual life, for some connections to the world in which we live, and for purity of vision.
We had to look at this book in our module talking about the pastoral or the antipastoral. Actually, we were talking about antipastoral with regard to this book. Let me help with a bit of context.
Pastoral texts are those that are written with only the good things in mind. If you think of the poems where they idealise the countryside and it only talks about the beauty, the serenity and the rolling hills then you’re reading a pastoral text. This book talks more about the antipastoral where everything is bleak and there is very little beauty. The protagonist, Michael K, might look at the farm he arrives at as a thing of beauty but Coetzee has depicted it rather more harshly. We see how it needs a lot of work, how the land is rather dry and can’t grow anything much without input from a person.
As with the other Coetzee book I read I found this a hard slog. It was slightly easier than Disgrace which I read last year. His writing is gritty and he doesn’t pull any punches, but it’s worth the slog. He sets his pieces within South Africa, the Life and Times of Michael K is set within a time of turmoil when South Africa is torn by civil war. We see the war through the eyes of someone who is just trying to keep his head down and get by, someone who doesn’t necessarily understand nor care to even try to understand what is happening. We’re given the impression that even if Michael wanted to understand that he wouldn’t. He has some, um, ‘interesting’ ideas about food and sustains himself somehow while he tries to grow pumpkins. After they’re grown he still doesn’t eat them. When he’s found he complains that they woke him up and he’s not at all undernourished, just needed to have his sleep.
Do I recommend you read this?
If you like Coetzee then yes. If you like gritty books which make you think, definitely yes. If you like books where there’s always a happy ending then I ask why you’re doing reading my blog.