Michael K is a perfect nobody, and even though he’s spent his life shut in and shuffled between institutions of one kind or another, it’s still as if he didn’t even exist.
The novel is about how Michael K gradually disengages himself from everything that’s institutional, moves away from the world and puts a distance between himself and reality with which – he claims – he has nothing in common.
First he quits his job, and then he quits the city in order to fulfill the last wish of his ailing mother and take her back to her idolized rural birthplace, and then, after the death of his mother, he slowly quits his own institutional self, too – he loses his documents, and partly intentionally, partly incidentally loosens then tears forever the few ties that tied him to society – that made him real in society’s eyes.
Everyone in the novel tends to think that Michal K has a screw loose, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with his mental faculties. His passivity, silence, and dumb acceptance of every wrong done to him is just the surface.
Is he really passive? He isn’t. If he makes up his mind to get his mother away from the city, he does it. If he wants to achieve something, he takes action.
Is he really silent? He isn’t. He speaks when he has something to say. He speaks when the thoughts he harbors inside are expressible. And he knows perfectly well that there’s so much that’s impossible to express – and then he doesn’t even try to express those things.
Does he really dumbly accept everything? He doesn’t. If he’s fed up with the way he’s treated somewhere by someone, he ups and disappears.
The oft-mentioned Kafkaesque quality and the references to Kafka’s works are quite obvious but not particularly intriguing to me. I’m not sure if there’s a hidden importance to the fact that the protagonist is called K and that he’s moved around at the whims of others in an absurd, cruel, and bureaucratic nightmare of a world, or to the fact that a mysterious Castle is mentioned here once or twice. Sure – the significance of these details is that they make the novel Kafkaesque, but I’m not convinced whether they signify something else besides this.
There are other parallels here, though, which are more interesting and rewarding for me. First, Michael K’s simplemindedness (not in the sense of feeble-mindedness but in the sense that he is really only concerned with a simple thing: living on and from the earth, as the most natural thing in the world, freely, without leaving a single track after himself) reminds me of Thoreau’s Walden. Michael K wants so little. So little to give and so little to take. His simplicity, his lack of needs is un-human, humanless – it doesn’t allow for deep human bonds – after all, what kind of bond would be possible with someone who doesn’t want anything? And because of this, I was also often reminded of Camus’ The Stranger. Michael K seems to feel a little more deeply towards his mother than Meursault, still – the relationship tying him to his mother feels like an artificial bond, an institution forced upon him by the world, and life’s burden feels lighter after the mother is gone.
And ultimately all this is awfully unsettling – I always end up feeling terrible when I read such distant-sounding, impersonal, unapproachable, reclusive novels. Of course the way I feel is a judgment not about the quality of the novel, but about its effect. And Coetzee sure can write deeply unhinging novels.