J. M. Coetzee’s booker prize winning short novel Life and Time of Michael K is a story of a man caught up in a war beyond his understanding, but determined to live his life minimally on his own terms. It is a story of survival and isolation, the individual struggling against a society gone awry -- and struggling to survive in nature. This novel focuses on the central character of this novel Michael K and his experiences in South Africa during a time of civil unrest. Coetzee depicts Michael K, a hairliped unattractive simpleton who embodies the power of the human spirit and need for freedom, despite tremendous setbacks. Coetzee here shows how Michael K strives to insulate himself from the despair of the war that rages around him in South Africa that is ravaged by apartheid.
In the apartheid system of governance that supports a legalized racial segregation policy dismantles the human rights of the people and makes people victim of utter negligence and deprivation. People started leading a life of an outcast. We find a clear picture of this when Michael K starts his long arduous journey from Cape Town to Prince Albert along with his ailing mother.
When Michael K pleaded to the railway for earlier departure, the railway police clerk told him that he had to wait two months for the permission to travel with train. But Michael’s request on the state of his ailing mother could not constitute any sympathetic grounds in the heart of authority rather the clerk disregards the condition of his dying mother cruelly. The police in Michael K’s world have no need for such personal stories. Suffering is not the true aspect when those without power utter it. The “permit” will be granted only to those willing to make their stories conform to official paradigms. After failing to untangle (to make sth easier from complication) the bureaucracy required getting a travel permit, K had to build a rudimentary art out of scrap and began the journey on foot.
On the way his mother deteriorates so piteously that Michael K must surrender her to a hospital in Stellenbosch. In the hospital Michael was interrogated by the authority about his religious denomination, place of abode, about travel documents. Michael was shunted from his dying mother. Eventually his mother died without his presence and she was cremated without consultation and given back to him a small bundle of ashes in a plastic bag very whimsically. This phase of this novel draws our sympathy and affection for a helpless child I the midst of utter civil disorder.
On his way to Prince Albert to bury the ashes of his mother’s death body, Michael was encountered by two policemen in the street who checked his suitcase and after checking the addressed Michael as a thief. One of the soldiers also ransacks his belongings and the money he had in his purse. Michael asked the soldier: “what do you think the war is for? For taking other people’s money?” In the apartheid system of society there is no value of such question.
When he reached Worcester, he found a straggling (to spread in an untidy way in different directions0 line of people. Michael inquires a woman about the queue of people but the woman turned away her face without any response. It was because of his physical deformity that made him encounter the public negligence. Later, he made out that it was a check post where police were seeking green card to let people ahead crossing the border. Michael is a man without green card and he was taken in the company of fifty strangers driving towards railway yards. The train carrying Michael and other strangers reached a place where the track is blocked with heap of rocks and red clay. Michael K found men in that spot struggling like ants to roll a mechanical shovel out of a track. K also found himself assigned to a gang working on that track. Michael asked a man in the labor gang: “why have I got to work here?” the man replied like a conformist to the apartheid system. He said: just do what you’re told. The man also said; “don’t be so miserable. This isn’t jail. This isn’t a life sentence. This is just a labor gang.” But to Michael that place was not an ideal one because he had his determination to reach Price Albert to fulfill the dream of his mother. Hence he resolved to flee away from that labor gang camp.
Eventually Michael arrived the farm in the Prince Albert that his mother desired to reach. Here he buries the ashes and begins to cultivate some patches of land as he has a profound connection to the earth and his desire to grow his own food which is his sole purpose of living to overcome the physical obstacles in the discovery of self. Soon, however, his proprietorship is disturbed by the arrival of the grandson of the Visages, an army deserter. His return to that farm offers an ironic parallel with the fulfillment of his mother’s dream of return. Driven away by the visage’s grandson Michael K is picked up by the authorities and after a stay in hospital he is taken to Jakkaldriff camp in which unemployed workers are interned to labor pool. But Michael K gain escapes and returns to Prince Albert farm, his ideal comfort zone. Returning there, he again cultivates new crop of pumpkins and melons to which he regards as his brothers and sisters. This time his task of cultivation is destroyed by the arrival of small revolutionary force and they suspected him as an anarchist collaborating with rural guerrillas and interned him in the Kenilworth camp.
In the Kenilworth camp the doctor seems genuinely attentive to Michael K as a person but with the figure of doctor-narrator, the process of coercion puts on a genteel mask. The doctor wants to know something about Michael K, so tries repeatedly to persuade K to talk. The doctor wants to know the story of his life. But the story he is given is not one K expects. Soon the doctor’s complicity with apartheid authority emerges as he demands Michael K tell the police something. “you want to live, don’t you? Well then, talk, make our voice heard…” The reiteration of “polite civilized gentlemen” underscores the extent to which situation is a mockery of the ideal conversation. The doctor becomes increasingly exasperated and he proposes fabricating a necessary story for the report.” The doctor’s story is a montage assembled from its and pieces of the meta-narrative that keeps the South African apartheid system going. The doctor’s story is the sort of narrative the government expects. By providing it, he is in fact substantiating the apartheid government’s view of reality.
Michael K accepts the impoverishments that his life’s story represents. He discards the food provided by the hospital because he wants to enjoy the “bread of freedom”. His own true story, like pumpkins he raises for his own survival cannot be integrated into the global system and thus are worthless to the authorities.
In a land of brute totalitarian surveillance (close observation) there is hardly any scope of expressing the hearts inner tale. In the following quotation told by Michael K articulates the human condition in an apartheid era. Michael says, “They want me to open my heart and tell them a story of a life lived in the cages. They want to hear about all the cages I have lived in, as if I were a budgie or white mouse or monkey.” The brutality of totalitarianism has dissolved the possibility of a conversation of democratic equals and keeps every Michael in South Africa apartheid society as an outcast. However Michael k manages to escape back to Cape Town, where he settles down from where he started, realizing his life, and his connection to the earth.