Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane

The Life and Times of Michael K

This novel reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Both are about a man stripped down to basics by apocalypse. The apocalypse forces a renunciation of what we think of as ordinary life and raises the question of what we really need to be true to ourselves or perhaps good or maybe (?) happy or content. There are big differences between the two but this core similarity remains.

My sense of the book’s stance: mankind is unable to let go of what destroys him and what makes him miserable. So he is destroyed and must learn to live without anything. The life he finds appears meagre and horrific. (A point-of-view switch in the second part makes that clear brilliantly. It also suggests how little do-gooderism is worth when fundamentals are wrong.) But that horrific life is at least his and seems…

Well, it’s hard to say, because I read from the position of the do-gooder in the second section. I can’t make myself write “his horrific life satisfies him” or that “it is sufficient” or whatever. In fact, the book makes it difficult to make any judgement about the protagonist or his state. He moves through the tale, a cypher, who shows the world and people around him for what they are, good or bad. What he is, I’m not sure. I do know that he doesn’t want or expect to die though. He’s alive at the novel’s close and the last word of the book is the verb “live.”

This book is digging for an image of the life that is real life, trying to figure out what it might be, but most clearly it shows that people dying in a dead system of violence and war can (and will) look at real life and mistake it for dying. Seems complicated and it is. But a very good book.

Foolish question: I know so little of modern South African history that I can’t tell if the historical events framing this story are imagined à The Road or history presented obliquely with the assumption that the reader can supply the decoder key.

June 2011. Panjim India

Posted August 24, 2011