Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Simple Tale of Complexity


I would love to discuss J.M. Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K with an expert. Reading a book and applying my own insights is one thing. Talking it over with someone who's followed its course and connections would be something else indeed.

Coetzee tells the eventful but relatively straightforward story of Michael K in simple, nearly adjective-free language, managing to convey physical surroundings but also Michael K's vast interior landscape that passes unseen to all but the reader. South African Michael K is born with a cleft lip (Coetzee calls it a hare lip), is classified early on as being slow-minded, and learns to be unobtrusive by accompanying his mother to her housecleaning work. As a result, people overlook him his entire life, an advantage as Cape Town sweeps into civil war. He never bonds with anyone in the usual way, although he's devoted to his mother. When she falls ill after a lifetime of hard work, he does his best to help her return home, continuing to carry her ashes after she dies.

His journey from the city to the country leads to farming, contact with rebel forces, internment, escape, and eventual return to the city. As he travels from place to place, he finds everything changed from the way he remembers it or has heard it described. His experiences with the world--rather while traveling, while farming, or while imprisoned in the "reeducation" camp--influence but do not control his interior life, which deepens and simplifies with each new experience.

Many themes intertwine here, another reason an expert academic would be helpful, but they circle back to the same thing in a Zenlike way. Through his challenges and disappointments, Michael K becomes directly and deeply connected to Mother Earth, withdrawing over time from human authority and social structures. He does this not by statements or even by what we would recognize as intellectual thought, but by acting upon his deep yearning for simplicity and direct connection. People project their own ideas onto him: he must be doing this because he's in league with the rebels, or because he's depressed, or for whatever reason their experience suggests. But he's not following ideas, he's just following what he feels is right for him. His life pares away the superfluous, bit by bit, achieving (though not in search of) a purity that is its own reward, as well as its own danger in a society organized around a vastly different set of principles.             

The result is a powerful parable of our modern era, with echoes of Kafka in its themes of agency and freedom--and in its strangeness.     

Excerpt:

There was much else he could have taken to make life easier for himself: a grid, a cooking-pot, a folding chair, slabs of foam rubber, more of the feed-sacks. He scratched among the odds and ends in the shed and there was nothing for which he could not imagine a use. But he was wary of conveying the Visagies' rubbish to his home in the earth and setting himself on a trail that might lead to a re-enactment of their misfortunes. The worst mistake, he told himself, would be to try to found a new house, a rival line, on his small beginnings out at the dam. Even his tools should be of wood and leather and gut, materials the insects would eat when one day he no longer needed them.

Note: I read this as part of my on-going reading of the Man Booker prize winners, and also for the Color Coded Reading Challenge, the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, and as the P (Prince Albert)  in the Where are You Reading? Reading Challenge.   

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