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An analysis of Michael K in Coetzee’s 'Life and time of Michael K'




 As the title indicates, Michael K is the protagonist of the short novel. This is the story of a heroic anonymity. The story is set in the 1960’s South Africa , at a time when the country was totally ripped apart by a civil war emanating from political hegemony of the Whites.  Therefore, the readers of this book are allowed to have an access to the inner self of Michael K, at the same time they can have a glimpse of the social and political condition of the then South Africa.

As the story of the novel unfolds, we are gradually made aware that the protagonist is a “dull” person. He is “not quick”. Even nature is not merciful to him: he was born fatherless, and with a physical disability which prevented him from growing up as a normal child. So, from the start, he was doomed to bear an ill fate.

The portrait of Michael K is a naïve one. He is a simpleton and the obscurest of the obscure. He seems to be a mote in the dust heap of suwety, but he is no derelict. His naïve portrait is the main resource of Coetzee’s narrative.

He starts his career as an honest and devoted public gardener in Dewaal Park in Cape Town. His mother Anna K works as a housemaid in a rich man’s house in Cape Town. Both of them lead a simple but honorable life just before the Civil War breaks. As his mother’s house is attacked and vandalized, the readers know that the country is at war, and K becomes one of many trapped in the war.

From the first to the last, Michael K remains an extreme individualist. He does not approve the war nor does he denounce the war. He is identified with neither rulers nor rebels. He remains a complete outsider in times of the civil unrest. His heart only knows what is obvious and elemental.

He is not a protester against social injustice and oppression. He is an unheroic hero. He never utters such high words as ‘justice’, “ideal” what he cares for is only his mother as well as the earth. At the end of the novel, in his realization, mother and earth will be the same entity.

His deep responsibility and care for his ailing mother is beyond description. After the war starts, his mother makes a wish that she wants to return to her birth place, a farmhouse in Prince Albert. Then K sets out on a long and laborious journey along mother. The greater part of the book covers the minute description of the journey. On the way, they confront danger, rain and severe cold. As it is wartime, they also face military convoys’ interrogation and other forms of torture.

On the road, his mother’s condition worsens and the so surrenders her to a nearby hospital. In the hospital, she dies without consultation with him. She is cremated and K is given a small bundle of ashes in a plastic bag. Now K’s responsibility becomes the burial of the ashes in his mother’s dream, land in Prince Albert. At long last, he gets to the desired place and buries his mother’s ashes.

K’s relationship with his mother and soil is crucial to the understanding of the novel. He is a naïve who is more than anyone biologically connected to mother and soil. As the soil provides him with his foods, he becomes grateful to it.

K is a genuine human being who is capable of human love and tenderness. He sees the grown up vegetables as his siblings. This humanity is in sharp contrast o the cruelty of the artificial civilization. The violence and atrocity of the war can not taint his inner intregity and genuine love.

K’s character itself is a criticism- of war and destruction. He wonders with a wise naivety why people carry guns when it’s easier for them to grow plants and vegetables.

He becomes a successful farmer in his mother’s abandoned farm growing melons and pumpkins. Really, for the first time in his life, he gets a temporal bliss. Here, “he was neither a prisoner nor a castaway …….he was himself.”

Later, K flees the farmhouse and he is picked up as a parasite and confined to a work camp.  His previous idyllic life shatters with the advent of this stage. His later life is a parable of starvation. He can neither eat nor can

Later, K flees the farmhouse and he is picked up as a parasite and confined to a work camp. His previous idyllic life shatters with the advent of this stage. His later life is a parable of starvation. He can neither eat nor can he swallow. Injustice is vomited out. He is not to be fed because he only “eats the bread of freed.”

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