“The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K when she helped him out of his mother into the world was that he had a hare lip. The lip curled like a snail’s foot, the left nostril gaped. Obscuring the child for a moment from it’s mother, she prodded open the tiny bud of a mouth and was thankful to find the palate whole.”
In this novel by Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, Michael K is a simple-minded young man, living in the middle of a civil war in South Africa. His mother, a maid in the home of a white family, is ailing. The family she works for has left the city, making no provisions to take care of their servants. She not only asks Michael to care for her, but she requests that he take her back to her home in the country.
One of the things that struck me most about this novel, was the “science fiction” feeling of the book. We have Michael, who is like a stranger in a strange land. He cannot communicate because of his deformity, and with the war going on, he is in danger from both the army and the insurgents. The countryside is devastated. It is dry and hot. There is no food anywhere. And of course, Michael is black. He does not have value here.
Yet, through it all, Michael cherishes his freedom – which is taken away on several occasions. He strives to maintain his dignity and eventually we see the light of compassion in others.
So many times in novels relating to the horrors of war in Africa, it feels like the reader is outside looking in. Coetzee is (for me at least) able to extend the feeling of what it is like to be Michael K. I really enjoyed Life & Times of Michael K and hope to read more by this author.
4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1985