The Idea of Gardening

The Life and Times of Michael K

by J.M. Coetzee
Viking, 184 pp., $13.95

Allegory is generally regarded as a superior literary form. It is thought to clear the reader’s lungs of the transient and fill them with a deep breath of transcendence. Man becomes Everyman (that bore).

From the writer’s point of view, allegory is no more than one among other forms. But I believe there is a distinction between the writer’s conscious choice of it, and its choice of him/her. In the first instance, loosened by time from ancient sources of myth, magic, and morality, allegory is sometimes snatched from the air to bear aloft a pedestrian imagination or to distance the writer, for reasons of his own, from his subject. In the second instance, allegory is a discovered dimension, the emergence of a meaning not aimed for by the writer but present once the book is written.

J.M. Coetzee, a writer with an imagination that soars like a lark and sees from up there like an eagle, chose allegory for his first few novels. It seemed he did so out of a kind of opposing desire to hold himself clear of events and their daily, grubby, tragic consequences in which, like everyone else living in South Africa, he is up to the neck, and about which he had an inner compulsion to write. So here was allegory as a stately fastidiousness; or a state of shock. He seemed able to deal with the horror he saw written on the sun1 only—if brilliantly—if this were to be projected into another time and plane. His Waiting for the Barbarians was the North Pole to which the agitprop of agonized black writers (and some white ones hitching a lift to the bookmart on the armored car) was the South Pole; a world to be dealt with lies in between. It is the life and times of Michael K, and Coetzee has taken it up now.

Michael K (the initial probably stands for Kotze or Koekemoer and has no reference, nor need it have, to Kafka) is not Everyman. In fact he is marked out, from birth, by a harelip indelibly described as curled like a snail’s foot. His mother is a servant in Cape Town, which means he is a so-called coloured, and he grows up fatherless in a home for handicapped children. His deformity distorts his speech and his actual and self-images. He shrinks from the difficulty of communication through words and the repugnance he sees holding him off, in people’s eyes; thus he appears to be, and perhaps is, retarded—one of those unclassifiable beings that fascinated Dostoevsky, a “simple.”

He is suitably employed as a gardener by the municipality of Cape Town. A civil war has been going on for an unspecified time—as such wars do, undeclared and unending—and in various parts of the country—as such wars are waged in our time, Michael K’s time—with roving destruction missing patches of stranded calm. Michael is no more aware of this war than of much else in society that ignores him (women,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.