J.M. Coetzee. Life and Times of Michael K. 1985. Harmondsworth:Penguin Books, Ltd.
I have just reread The Life and Times of Michael K. It was as though I had never read it before; that this was my first reading. Perhaps I did not have the means when I first read it to find in it a meaning for myself. I ask myself – have I found meaning in it now because I am old and essentially a loner. Michael K is a man who eschews relationship and can only find himself in a solitary existence.
Michael K - Why K? Are we to remember Kafka and how humans become dehumanised inside institutions? Michael’s life is a series of escapes from societal institutions and human relationships. As a baby he is kept away from others because he has a harelip, later he leaves school, then he leaves Huis Norenius, an institution for children with deformities, he leaves his gardening job and when his mother wishes to go back to her birthplace in Prince Albert in the Eastern Cape, he leaves Cape Town. When his mother dies, he is no longer confined by any attachment and sets about creating his solitary existence. But the sanctuaries he builds for himself are continuously invaded. He is in perpetual hiding in the attempt to evade forced compromise of his freedom to be.
He lives in a situation of war. I see war in this book as a metaphor for the confinement of individual freedom that is imposed on us by living in society. Permits, curfews, roadblocks, searches, camps, relationships and charity are forms of pervasive and oppressive restriction.
Michael K, born with a harelip, kept apart from other children, does not develop a need for relationships. In his short time in school and in an institution, Huis Norenius, he experiences society as a set of confining rules. When he becomes a gardener, he finds a connection to the earth. It is the only relationship that does not confine him and allows him to be creative.
This is very different from ubuntu, which means a person is a person through other persons, but it is something that Michael ponders on when he considers an idea that has crept into his mind:
It (the idea) seemed more like Robert than like him, as he knew himself, to think like that. Would he have to say that the thought was Robert’s and had merely found a home in him, or could he say that though the seed had come from Robert, the thought, having grown up inside him, was now his own? He did not know. (p.130)
Michael does not seek dependence in any form, not in thought, word or deed. Ubuntu however posits dependence of individual on individual and individual on society. That is the norm that is generally accepted in all societies. Michael K finds it a burden. He wants total freedom not the compromised freedom of being in society.
Is that possible? Michael insists on it for himself; but the life he leads, a life of total independence, is a life reduced to the very basics. Even less – the consumption of food becomes irrelevant. Would it be different were he not hounded by society with its demand for conformity?
... the truth, the truth about me. I am a gardener, he said again, aloud. On the other hand, was it not strange for a gardener to be sleeping in a closet within sound of the beating of the waves of the sea?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. But a mole or an earthworm on a cement floor? (p. 248)
He cannot escape the influence of society. He is like the disinherited of the earth whose existence had meaning because it was bound up in the land. And we have to ask, is it better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to become a mole or an earthworm? Do we have that choice? Hoboes think they do.