Showing posts with label African Literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label African Literature. Show all posts

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Michael K’s Journey for survival in J. M. Coetzee’s novel 'Life and Time of Michael K'

 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.

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.

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.”