A Book Review of Michael K: A Novel

Reviewed by Thulani Mzini

Nthikeng Mohlele, the inimitable South African author of existential novels, uses Michael K as a muse in the 2018 published Michael K: a novel which re-imagines the philosophies of the vagabond of Coetzee’s creation in the context of the pressures of passion and purpose that pulsate through a typical mid-life crisis.

In JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, Michael K spends most of his life chasing an uncomplicated existence. His is a life of sparseness; of disconnection. In that brevity – in the spaces between his meagre meals and his languid sleeping – lies deep introspection about what matters most. Freedom. Simplicity. Nthikeng Mohlele, the inimitable South African author of existential novels, uses Michael K as a muse in the 2018 published Michael K: a novel which re-imagines the philosophies of the vagabond of Coetzee’s creation in the context of the pressures of passion and purpose that pulsate through a typical mid-life crisis. The remake creates a new thought experiment on the divorce of excess and the pursuit of living life only in spoonful’s.  

In Mohlele’s Michael K: a novel Miles M, the protagonist of the book, is enamoured by Micheal K’s ability to disregard the protocols and expectations of society and live as he sees fit. Miles yearns for an equal decluttering of his own world. We find him grappling with the trappings of a poet stuck in the body of a government official; thoroughly frustrated with the mundane and mendacious bureaucracy of monitoring immigration and border control, but equally insecure about ambitions and aspirations of becoming a creative. His entanglement with the necessities of modern-day life – necessities by his own definition to be sure; French art films, lattes, architectural magazines and the avoidance of the ‘…gradual deterioration in plurality and aesthetics of shoes and underwear…’ – make his aspirations to a Michael K kind of life seem near impossible and frightening. 

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And isn’t this cowardice, this insistence on a structured life, a sentiment Michael K would probably have frowned upon he contemplates while being lectured by his friend, the curly haired Dr. von Ludwig, on the economic contras of joining the fraternity of ‘…poets [who] are mostly paupers, rich only in spirit’.

Dr von Ludwig is the voice of reason and logic in the story, cautioning Miles against aspiring to the loneliness of Micheal K. His aim is to share with Miles the delectations of worldliness and companionship. 

‘You must watch it, my dear poet – a life such as K’s cannot be emulated or desired, for it is or was K’s nature to be who he was. He was born that way, with that cleft, the slow but not necessarily unremarkable mind, the instinct for a nomadic life, the urge for a life of seemingly eternal escapes’. The friendship between Miles and Von Ludwig – one that is brimming with affection and endearment – hints at Michael K’s glint of hope for companionship in the end of Coetzee’s book. 

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Mohlele writes beautifully. The long strings of sentences and descriptions sometimes clustering over 100 words while executing word placement and punctuation with the precision and exactness of a David Foster Wallace take your breath away. But reading more of his books, you get the idea that Mohlele’s fidelity to journeys of the mind exhibit an obsession of sorts. There is depth in the philosophies and anthropologies that he explores, but the themes are all the same; women and their pleasures, music and its illuminations, the crises of conscious that oxidise internal monologues. Michael K: a novel is as much a (very) long form character analysis essay of Coetzee’s muse as it is a story about a guy struggling with quitting his job to follow his dreams of being a poet. Mohlele’s craft is seemingly in contemplations and meditations rather than storytelling.  

Michael K: a novel picks up where Coetzee left off as it dissects and analyses and contrasts K’s life along the precepts of twenty first century lived experience and through the friendship of the poet Miles M and the philosopher Dr. Von Ludwig.

Shop the book at Makro for R176.

Author: Nthikeng Mohlele

Publisher: Picador Africa

Year of publication: 2018

Number of pages: 183

Category: Fiction

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