In “Politics,” Aristotle said that “man is a social animal.” And anyone who lived outside of society was “either beast or god.” One is impelled to ask this question of the protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s “Life and Times of Michael K,” winner of the 1983 Booker Prize.
Anna K, a domestic servant, compelled into retirement for health reasons, decides to return to her rural home, leaving behind the civil strife in the city and her unreliable living arrangement.
At the crack of drawn, on a cold autumn morning, her son, Michael K, a municipal gardener, in a dead-end job quits it, and joins her.
Pushing his ailing mother along the highway, in a wheelbarrow improvised as a cart, they set off for the countryside. Before the journey is over, his mother reaches her end, dying in a nondescript hospital.
It’s after that that Michael K embarks on another voyage, one that takes him outside the confines of civilization.
With no money in his pockets, no personal possessions—save a “brown paper parcel,” containing his mother’s ashes— no roof over his head, and no food to sustain on, he trudges on for seemingly endless days, through dirt roads and obscure tracks.
At long last, he arrives at a desolate farm. And just when he’s beginning to make a home for himself there, he’s hauled off to a labor camp.
[Living like a] termite, boring its way through a rock [he] would spend lying on his belly over an ant-nest picking out the larvae one by one with a grass-stalk and putting them in his mouth. Or he would peel the bark from dead trees looking for beetle-grubs; or knock grasshoppers out of the air with his jacket, tear off their heads and wings, and pound their bodies to a pulp which he dried in the sun.
Michael K’s existence is one that’s stripped to its most primal form, stark and austere, where time has lost its structure. Bundled up in frayed hand-me-downs, living in an underground burrow and surviving on worms and roots, he seems to go from one day to the next doing nothing, but living.
In “Empire,” Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri sum up his existence:
Michael K is a figure of absolute refusal. He is always on his feet, always moving. He is a gardener, a simple man, so simple that he appears to be not of this world.
In a fictional country divided by civil war, he is continually stopped by the cages, barriers, and checkpoints erected by authority, but he manages quietly to refuse them, to keep moving.
Michael K does not keep moving just for the sake of perpetual motion. The barriers don’t just block motion, they seem to stop life, and thus he refuses them absolutely in order to keep life in motion.
What he really wants is to grow pumpkins and tend to their wandering vines. K’s refusal of authority is absolute, and that very absoluteness and simplicity situate him, too on a level of purity.
K also approaches the level of naked universality—a human soul above and beneath classification, being simply human.
A slim, but weighty novel, the “Life and Times of Michael K” is a profoundly moving book that brought tears to my eyes.