Friday, March 23, 2012

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

Another masterpiece by Coetzee. It tells the story of Michael K who escapes the city during a civil war with his ailing mother with aim of taking her back to the house where she grew up as a girl in the countryside. But eventually ends taking her ashes instead when she dies on the journey. The story vividly tells the day to day struggles of a man who survives the harsh countryside, trying to go back to the old ways of tending to a garden and growing his own food. He is eventually captured but has lost all the will to live in the "system".

K closed his eyes and rested his face on his hands. It was clear to him that it was not soldiers who were camping at the dam, who had earlier camped at the house, but men from the mountains, men who blew up railway tracks and mined roads and attacked farmhouses and drove off stock and cut one town off from another, whom the radio reported exterminated in scores and newspapers published pictures in pools of their own blood. That was whom his visitors were. But they seemed to him like nothing so much as a football team: eleven men young men come off the field after a hard game, tired, happy, hungry.
His heart was pounding. When they leave in the morning, he thought to himself, I could come out of hiding and trot along behind them like a child following a brass band. After a while they would notice me and stop to ask what I wanted. And I could say give me a pack to carry; let me chop wood and build the fire at the end of the day. Or I could say: be sure to come back to the dam net time and i will feed you. I will have pumpkins and squashes and melons by then, i will have peaches and figs and prickly pears, you will lack nothing. And they will come next time on the way to the mountains or wherever it is the go by day, and i would feed them and afterwords sit when them around the fire drinking in their words. The stories they tell would be diff from the stories i head at the camp. Because the camp was for those left behind, the women and children, the old men, the blind, the crippled, the idiots, people who have nothing to tell but stories of how they have endured. Whereas these young men have had adventures, victories and defeats and escapes, they will have stories to tell long after the war is over, stories for a lifetime, stories for their grandchildren to listen to open-mouthed.
Yet in the same instant that he reached down to check that his shoe laces were tied, K knew that he would not crawl out and stand up and cross from darkness to the firelight to turn himself in. K knew the reason why: because enough men had gone to war saying that the time for gardening was when the war was over; whereas there must be men to stay behind and keep gardening alive, or at least the idea of gardening; because once the cord was broken the earth would grow hard and forget her children. That was why.
Between this reason and the truth that he would never announce himself, however, there lay a gap wider than the distance separating him from the firelight. Always, when he tried to explain himself to himself, there remained a gap, a hole, a darkness before which understanding baulked, it was useless to pour words. The words were eaten up, the gap remained. His was always a story with a hole in it: a wrong story, always wrong.

Parasite was the word the police captain had used: the camp at Jakkalsdrif, a nest of parasites hanging from the neat sunlit town, eating its substance, giving no nourishment back. Yet to K lying idle in his bed, thinking without passion (What is it to me, after all? he thought), it was no longer obvious which was the host and which parasite, camp or town. If the worm devoured the sheep, why did the sheep not devour the worm? What if there were millions, more millions than anyone knew, living in camps, living on alms, living off the land, living by guile, creeping away in corners to escape the times, to canny to put out flags and draw to ourselves and be counted? What if the hosts were far outnumbered by the parasites, the parasites of idleness and the other secret parasites in the army and the police force and the schools and the factories and offices, the parasites of the heart? Could the parasites still be called parasites? Parasites too had flesh and substance; parasites too could be preyed upon. Perhaps in truth whether the camp was declared a parasite on the town or the town a parasite on the camp depended on no more than on who made his voice heard loudest.

Finally, a letter written by the camp doctor where is taken after being captured by soldiers and accused of helping the rebels.

Dear Michaels,
The answer is: because I want to know your story. I want to know how it happened that you of all people have joined in a war, a war in which you have no place. You are no soldier, Michaels, you are a figure of fun, a clown, a wooden man. What is you business in this camp? There is nothing you can do here to rehabilitate you from the vengeful mother with flaming hair who comes in your dreams. Do I understand that part of the story correctly? That is how I understand it anyhow. What is there for us to rehabilitate into you? Basketwork? Lawn-mowing? You are like a stick insect, Michaels, whose sole defence against universal predators is its bizarre shape. You are like a stick insect that has landed, God knows how, on the middle of a great black bare concrete plain. You raise your slow fragile stick legs one at a time, looking for something to merge with, and there is nothing. Why did you ever leave the bushes, Michaels. That is where you belong. You should have stayed all your life clinging to a nondescript bush in a quiet corner of an obscure garden in a peaceful suburb doing whatever that stick insects do to maintain life, nibbling a leaf here and there, eating the odd aphid, drinking dew. And – if I may be personal – you should have got away at an early age from that mother of your, who sounds like a real killer. You should have found another bush as far as possible from her and embarked on an independent life. You made a great mistake, Michaels, when you tied her on your back and fled the burning city for the safety of the countryside. Because when I think of you carrying her, panting under weight, choking in the smoke, dodging the bullets, performing all the other feats of filial piety, you no doubt performed, I also think of her sitting on your shoulders, eating out your brains, glaring about triumphantly, the very embodiment of Great Mother Death. And now that she is gone you are plotting to follow her. I wonder what it is that you see, Michaels, when you open your eyes so wide – for you certainly do not see me, you certainly do not see the white walls and the empty beds of the infirmary, you do not see Felicity in her snow white turban. What do you see? Is it your mother in her circle of flaming hair grinning and beckoning to you with crooked finger to pass through the curtain of light and join her in the world beyond. Does that explain your indifference to life?
Another thing I would like to know is that what was the food you ate in the wilderness that has made all other food tasteless to you. The only food you have ever mentioned is pumpkin. You even carry pumpkin seeds with you. Is pumpkin the only food they know in the Karoo? Am i to believe that you lived for a year on pumpkin? The human body is not capable of that Michaels. What else did you eat? Did you hunt? Did you make yourself a bow and arrows and hunt? Did you eat roots and berries? Did you eat locusts? Your paper say that your are opgaarder. A storage man. But they do not say what i was that you stored. Was is manna? Did manna fall from the sky for you? And did you store it away in underground bins for your friends to come and eat in the night? Is that why you will not eat camp food – because you have been spoiled forever by the taste of manna.
You should have hidden Michaels. You were too careless of yourself. You should have crept away in the darkest reach of the darkest hole and possessed yourself in patience as the troubles were over. Did you think you were a spirit invisible, a visitor on our planet, a creature beyond the reach of the laws of nations? Well, the laws of nations have you in their grip now: they have pinned you down in a bed beneath the grandstand of the old Kenilworth racecourse, they will grind you in the dirt if necessary. The laws are made of iron, Michaels, I hope you are learning that. No matter how thin you make yourself they will not relax. There is no home left for universal souls except perhaps in Antarctica or the high seas. If you will not compromise, you are going to die, Michaels. And do not think you are simply going to waste away, grow more and more insubstantial till you are all soul and you can fly into the aether. The death you have chosen is full of pain and misery and shame and regret, and there are many days to endure yet before release comes. You are going to die and your story is going to die to forever and ever, unless you come to your senses and listen to me. Listen to me, Michaels. I am the only one who can save you. I am the only one who sees you for the original soul that you are. I am the only one who cares for you. I alone see you neither as a soft case for a soft camp nor a hard case for a hard camp but a human soul above and beneath classification. A soul blessedly untouched by doctrine, untouched by history, a soul stirring with wings within that stiff sarcophagus, murmuring behind that clownish mask. You are precious, Michaels, in your way; you are the last of your kind, a creature left over from an earlier age, like the last man to speak Yaqui. We have all tumbled over the lip into the cauldron of history: only you, following your idiot life, biding your time in an orphanage (who would have thought of that as a hiding place!), evading the peace and the war, skulking in the open to an old dream, have managed to live in the old way, drifting through time, observing the seasons, no more trying to change the course of history that a grain of sand does. We ought to value you and celebrate you, we ought to put your clothes on a Marquette in a museum. Your clothes and your packet pf pumpkin seeds too, with a label; there ought to be a plaque nailed to the racetrack wall commemorating your stay here. But that is not the way it is going to be. The truth is that you are going to perish in obscurity and be buried in a nameless hole in a corner of the racecourse, transport the acres of Woltemonde being out of the question nowadays, and no one is going remember you, unless you yield and at last open your mouth. I appeal to you, Michaels, yield!
A Friend.


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