Thursday, August 23, 2007

Life and Times of Michael K

"The stories they tell will be different from the stories I heard in 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."

This contrast between two types of stories, between two ways of experiencing civil war, appears in Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K. Michael K, one of "those left behind" during a civil war (a gardener who is at times reminiscent of the Peter Sellers character in Being There), contrasts himself with the militiamen who come across the abandoned farm that he has planted a few pumpkins on. The observation is fascinating, especially given that Michael K often seems to those who meet him like one of the "idiots" he imagines here. But the general point does not seem to be ironized by MK's limited perspective: a story of endurance is much different than a story of adventure, and the story of adventure has the potential to last much longer than the story of endurance. (I made a stronger version of that claim at first, but then I thought of Homer: the Iliad is a story of adventure, the Odyssey a story of endurance.)

Like the "wooden slips" in Waiting for the Barbarians, Michael K's story becomes material for interpretation by others, based on the fragments of the story that they know. When he is later interrogated, his interrogators know enough about his little pumpkin-farming operation to make a "reasonable inference" that he has been farming for the soldiers who crossed his land. The idea that, as a gardener, he was growing pumpkins for himself would be incomprehensible in the light of that inference.

Those interrogations are referred to by the anonymous narrator of part Two of the novel (parts One and Three are third-person limited narratives focused on MK himself). That narrator is a doctor at a labor-training camp where MK lives for a while. Starting from the same fragments of MK's story available to the interrogators, the doctor tries and fails (largely because of MK's silence) to come up with an alternative version of the story. The second section ends up reading as another allegory of the difficulties of the interpretation of narratives, even those (like parts One and Three as a unit) which are more complete than what the interrogators and the doctor have to work with.

A few pages before the end of the book, MK provides his own interpretation of his story:

"... the truth is that I have been a gardener, first for the Council, later for myself, and gardeners spend their time with their noses to the ground. / K tossed restlessly on the cardboard. It excited him, he found, to say recklessly, the truth, the truth about me. 'I am a gardener,' he said again, aloud. On the other hand, was it not strange for a gardener to be sleeping in a closet within sound of the beating of the waves of the sea? / I am more like an earthworm, he thought. Which is also a kind of gardener. Or a mole, also a gardener, that does not tell stories because it lives in silence. But a mole or an earthworm on a cement floor?"

Even the interpretation of MK's story that ought to be privileged (his own, of course) ends up being unstable: even as he enjoys the idea of saying "the truth about me," his train of thought disrupts the stability of that truth. It is as if he were his own interrogator, calling his own claims into question because they contradict the "reasonable inferences" one can make about his possible story, given that he is, after all, sleeping in a closet on a piece of cardboard.

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