The Picture of the Apartheid Era in J. M Coetzee's 'Life and Time of Michael K'

J. M Coetzee, a white South African writer, invents a sort of history that creates a catharsis in people about issues of Apartheid and South African oppression. His intentions are not to entertain his readers with fictional story of life in South Africa. Instead, he has the intention of giving to his readers a new perspective on the life if certain figures who struggle to overcome the chains that tie them to colonization and the governmental power of the European minority in South Africa. Coetzee’s, Life and Time of Michael K, which fetched a Booker Prize in 1983, tells of a bare-lipped simple gardener, Michael K, trying to run away from the South African war during the apartheid era. His journey started from Cape Town with his ailing mother, who wanted to go back to the more rulal Prince Albert, her girlhood home.

The main setting of the story takes place in apartheid era South Africa, sometime in the 1960’s-1970. The story moves between places such as the urban wasteland of Capetown to the rural town of Prince Albert. During the novel, K travels from Cape Town east, through Paarl Worcester, Touws River and Laingsburg and finally arrives at Prince Albert. At the end of the story K returns to Cape Town. In this geographical are/ he creates necessary atmosphere such as destruction of society, participation, silence and anarchy which are important to explore the intimations of freedom. This atmosphere set an ambiguous story line and gives the reader a sense of liberation.

Loosely based on reality, the author makes the country of South African into a Police State in order to set the story. The military is fighting rebels and all the civilians are caught in the cross fire. A tangle of papers and signatures is needed just to travel around the country.

 Life and Time of Michael K starts in the village of sea point where Michael K, a disfigured, coloured man lives with his mother. Michael at the age of 15 has worked as a gardener in a public park in Cape Town. He decides to take his mother on a long march away from the guns toward a new life in the abandoned country side. He builds a crude hand-drawn vehicle to restore his mother to a lost place that has become the frail ephemeral Eden of her illness, where she remembers having once been happy in childhood. This patch is only five hours away, however, in this critical condition of the country, without a permit they may not go by train. No permit arrives. They set out clandestinely, the young man having the weight of his old mother in the cart, dodging military convoys, hiding, the two of them repeatedly assaulted by cold and bad weather and thugs with knives. To Michael K at the start of the journey, brutality and danger and stiffness of limb and rain seem all the same; tyranny feels us material an ordeal as the harshness of the road.

On the road his mother deteriorates so piteously as that Michael K must surrender her to a hospital. There he is shunted aside and she dies. Without consultation her body is cremated and given back to him, a small bundle of ashes in a plastic bag. He holds his mother’s dust and imagines the burning halo of her hair. Then still without permission he returns her to Prince Albert, the place of her illumination, and buries her ashes. It is a grassy nowhere, a guess, the cloud rack of a dream of peace, the long abandoned farm of a departed Afrikaners family, a forgotten and unrecorded spot falled through the brute mesh of totalitarian surveillance.

At Prince Albert begins the parable of Michael K’s freedom and resourcefulness; here begins Michael K’s brief bliss. He is Robinson Crusoe, he is the lord of his of his life. It is his mother’s own earth. It is his motherland; he lives in a womblike burrow; he tills the fruilful soil. Miracles sprout from a handful of discovered seeds: “Now two pale green melons were growing on the far side of the field. It seemed to him that he loved these two, which he thought of as two sisters, even more than the pumpkins, which he thought of as a band of brothers. Under the melons he placed pads of grass that their skins should not bruise.” He eats with deep relish, in the fulfilment of what is ordained: the work of his hands, a newfound sovereignty over his hands and the blessing of fertility in his own scarp of ground.

However, his freedom does not last for a long time. A whining boy who is a runaway soldier takes over the farmhouse and declares himself in need of a servant. A group of guerrillas and their donkey pass through by night and trample the seedlings. Michael K flees; he is picked up as a “parasite” and confined to a work camp called Jakkalsdrif.  After spending sometime there, he escapes from the camp and goes back to the visage residence. He is eventually found by the polite, assumed to be providing information for the enemies of the war. He is then sent to the refugee camp at Kenilworth.

 At Kenilworth the second part of the novel takes place. And this part is narrated by the refugee camp doctor, who knows that Michael K is innocent and wants to help him survive. In the refugee camp, K cannot eat, cannot swallow, cannot get nourishment. “May be he only eats, the bread of freedom,” says the doctor. His body is “crying to be fed its own food and only that”. Behind the wire fences of a politics organized by curfew and restrictions, where essence is smothered by law and law is lie, Michael K is set aside as a rough mindless lost unfit creature, a simpleton or idiot, a savage. It is a wonder, the doctor observes, that he has been able to keep himself alive. Thus the judgement of benevolent arrogance-or compassion indistinguishable from arrogance- on the ingenious farmer and visionary freeman of his mother’s field. After much time, news is out that the war is getting worse and rehabilitation camps are turning into internment camps. Soon after, Michael K escapes from the camp.

The last past of the novel centres around Michael K’s return to Seapoint. He meets up with some travellers who offer him a place with them. K also has a sexual encounter with one of the women involved in the group. After this experience, he returns to the room that he used to stay in before leaving from Sea Point. He ends with a thought about the possibility of having to share the room with someone else and imaging an old man whom he would take back to the country with him.

In the book, Michael K strives to insulate himself from the despair of war that rages around him in South Africa that is ravaged by apartheid. Eventually, he succeeds in distancing himself from the hostile atmosphere around him. Through the geographical and political setting and atmosphere, Coetzee is deeply successful in creating a clear and succinct comment against the arbitrariness and absurdity of war.

Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, represents a struggle in which the main character journeys through a life of torment and ignorance in order to explore the intimations of freedom.