Life & Times of Michael K (J.M. Coatzee)

Probably the most interesting aspect of J.M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K is the incredibly-rich inner life of the novel’s protagonist, Michael K, who attempts to transcend history and politics through silent resistance. The novel could be interpreted through numerous approaches, such as historical, Marxist, postcolonial, feminist, psychoanalytic, deconstructive, ecocritical, or even through combinations of these various lenses. But ultimately, I think the novel resists concepts of meaning and interpretation. It’s ironic that I’m attempting to attach meaning to a character who has resisted being “narrativized.”

Following his mother’s death, Michael undertakes a journey to the countryside in a war-torn South Africa. He seeks peace and solitude from the Kafkaesque world in which he is trapped. He lives on his own, growing his own food (mainly pumpkins). His life only consists of sleeping and “gardening.” Michael’s inner life exhibits deep, intense happiness at the mundane. His peace, however, is disturbed when he is caught and accused of covering up for the rebels.

The second part of the novel is written in first person, from the perspective of Michael’s medical doctor. The doctor’s thoughts mirror the thoughts of the reader, in his attempt to understand Michael and get a story out of him. The doctor tries to diagnose Michael, and as readers, we are tempted to diagnose him as well.

Like Michael, the novel never gives us the meaning we are searching for. It resists having a fixed meaning or definition; it opposes representation, and it constantly reiterates the void we feel as we read. Michael insists he is nobody, and he lives nowhere. He asks the doctor, “Why fuss over me, why am I so important?” But it is our fear of absurdity that explains our impulse to ascribe meaning where there is potentially none. Sometimes it feels like Coetzee is giving us an allegory and simultaneously taking it away. This makes for a very frustrating reading experience, as we are used to turning to literature for meanings we may not find in real life.

Language is one of the aspects in the novel that seems inadequate, which explains Michael’s silence. By resisting speech, Michael takes away the possibility of misinterpretation and miscommunication in his words. His silence has been criticized as unfaithful. Michael attempts to escape historical and political reality by resorting to his own world, which manifests in the richness and spirituality of his inner life.

Michael poses an existential concern when he recalls his school days, searching for the quotient of an equation he must solve. In the end, he thinks, “I will die […] still not knowing what the quotient is.” Perhaps, as readers, we will die trying to figure out what the quotient is, what the story means, what Michael means, and ultimately, what life means.

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