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. -From Life and Times of Michael K, page 1-
Michael K’s hare lip is the first thing everyone notices about him – a disfigurement that sets him apart and causes his mother to institutionalize him at a young age. This physical defect seems to set the tone for Micahel’s life of isolation and a turning inward of himself. As an adult, Michael finds work as a gardener in the city of Cape Town; later as his mother’s health deteriorates he decides to return to the country and the home of her birth. But a civil war makes this journey a challenge in more ways than one. Michael and his mother do not have papers to leave the city, they don’t have reliable transportation, and they must avoid armed guards and roadblocks. When Michael’s mother dies along the way, Michael is left with her ashes and the determination to reach his destiny.
This is a disturbing and revealing novel about the strength of the human spirit to not only endure, but to overcome physical obstacles in the discovery of self. Michael’s connection to the earth, his desire to grow his own food, becomes his sole purpose of living.
Coetzee’s writing is vivid in its descriptions. The sense of place is strong, which makes this novel a somber look at South Africa. The human suffering, the pointlessness of the re-education camps, the cruelty of the military – all resound heavily on the pages of this book. Michael stands out, not only because he is physically marred, but because he possesses a peace within that those around him lack. A doctor who treats Michael in hospital seems to be the only character who identifies what makes Michael special.
As with all of Coetzee’s novels, Life and Times of Michael K is not light reading. In many ways it is depressing; but ultimately it captures the beauty of the human soul.