Life & Times of Michael K

Coetzee, J. M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

  • Date of entry: Jan-09-2018


A civil war rages inexorably in J. M. Coetzee’s novel, Life & Times of Michael K. Details of the war are vague, but the fighting will determine whether “minorities will have a say in their destinies” (Coetzee 157). Riots splinter communities, peoples are displaced, the military patrols and slaughters, and prison camps are erected. The novel’s first half introduces an unlikely protagonist at the center of the bloody tumult: Michael K, a municipal gardener—a gentle “simpleton” with a harelip “curled like a snail’s foot”—who cares for his ailing mother in Cape Town (3). Sick and unable to work, K’s mother resolves to return to her birthplace and girlhood home, Prince Albert, a far-flung cluster of homesteads in the Karoo, where she hopes to convalesce peacefully. Their migration permits, however, never arrive, likely lost in the abyss of State bureaucracy. Gathering his mother and their few possessions in a makeshift wheelbarrow, K attempts the arduous journey anyway but the passage is thwarted by a government checkpoint. As his mother’s condition deteriorates, she is hospitalized and dies, her body cremated before K gives hospital officials consent.  

The novel’s lulling elliptical cycle pushes K along the currents of departure and circumvention, to capture and escape. Pressing on to Prince Albert where he will deliver his mother’s remains, K is arrested and incarcerated in a railcar where he and other prisoners remove landslide rubble from a remote part of the rail line. Released after finishing the labor, K arrives to Prince Albert where he settles on the property of the ramshackle homestead and begins contentedly scavenging. Far from the tremors of war, he hunts birds, nibbles roots and bulbs, turns over rocks for grubs, drinks from streams, and, in a fit of wild hunger, drowns and slaughters a wild goat. All the while he finds a package of pumpkin and melon seeds that for the rest of his time on the property he will sedulously plant and water— “[t]his was the beginning of his life as a cultivator” (59). Immersed in this blanched world, at the center of its arid winds and mineral expanses, K devotedly coaxes his mean crop to life. But the war encroaches on K’s hiding place and he absconds to a mountain cave where he hides, and nearly starves.  

The stillness, silence, and sunlight of the Karoo seep into K’s bones: “If I were cut, he thought, holding his wrists out, looking at his wrists, the blood would no longer gush from me but seep, and after a little seeping dry and heal. I am becoming smaller and harder and drier every day” (67). Imperceptibly, K becomes the ephemeral ‘stuff’ of this harsh land: “He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything as a speck upon the surface on an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant-feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust” (97). K is shortly captured by the military and forced into a resettlement camp. Through the elliptical current of the novel, he escapes and returns to the Prince Albert homestead, where he finds his crop trampled. He nourishes the vines back to life and, in a moment of lonely exaltation, grills pumpkin flesh: “All that remains is to be a tender of the soil. […] He chewed with tears of joy in his eyes” (113). What K seeks, or what is seeking him, is a life of solitude, remote from peril and unrest, living in quiet reciprocity with the earth, exercising simple cultivation—a skill conspicuously anachronistic (but universally essential) in an age marked by the depravities of war.  

Wringing nourishment from veld-grown pumpkins, however, leaves K famished, and winds and squalls gut his makeshift shanty. Soon K is picked up, again, by a military patrol (he is suspected of abetting rebels camping in the mountains) that consigns him to a government hospital. The novel’s latter half is narrated by the hospital’s medical officer, a caring man who, doubtful of the war’s objectives, takes special interest in K’s recovery. By now, severely malnourished, K resembles “someone out of Dachau” (146). The medical officer is baffled by K, not for his uncooperative responses nor refusal to eat hospital food, but because of his status as a kind of ahistorical oddity in a time of modern warfare: “a human soul above and beneath classification, a soul blessedly untouched by doctrine, untouched by history, a soul stirring its wings within that stiff sarcophagus […] a creature left over from an earlier age, like a coelacanth or the last man to speak Yaqui” (151). The medical officer realizes K’s condition lies beyond simple diagnosis; rather, K’s body craves “a different kind of food, food that no camp could supply” (163). Sometime in the night, K vanishes from the hospital with his packet of pumpkin seeds, moving toward another remote patch of earth to cultivate.


While Coetzee’s novel does not directly explore overt themes of medicine and medical ethics, his narrative posits an abstract allegory that draws parallels between the human body and the body politic, human wellness and the health of society, human survival and the emaciation of the State. Withered by war, the country is deprived of the nourishment of communion and concord.

Writing from the perspective of a military hospital official, Coetzee banishes any simple reduction of K’s character to that of an eccentric green-thumb who refuses medical care. As the officer grows increasingly disillusioned by the interminable war, the more rapt he is by K’s ahistorical nature. In simile, K is no longer viewed as an intractable patient, but as some alien fossil of a primordial time: a “hard little stone”, “coelacanth”, “stick insect”, “the obscurest of the obscure.” Indeed, carrying the impulse to cultivate, K is viewed rather as the embodiment of what all societies must do following war and destruction, to give way to that primeval reflex to begin anew, carve out survival, to coax life again from scorched earth.

In a way, K knows this: “[…] because enough men had gone off to war saying the time for gardening was when the war was over; whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening; because once that chord was broken, the earth would grow hard and forget her children” (109). This is less of Coetzee positing an environmental ethic than recognizing the universal essentials of human survival that transcend the conflicts of civilization. For K, if all were swept into the vacuum of war, if no one lingered behind the fronts to tend soil, who, in the end, could lead others to start anew? to rebuild? to return closest to our very origins, earth? K would not pose these questions himself, only quit the smoking rubble and tread into the veld to find a fertile patch.


Man Booker Prize for Fiction 1983


The Viking Press

Place Published

New York

Page Count