Read of the Week

Michael K

Nthikeng Mohlele

Picador Africa

Review: John Harvey

Revisiting a character from the mind of a great literary inspiration could have been no easy feat for Nthikeng Mohlele.

While highly decorated as an author – Mohlele’s previous book Pleasure won the 2016 University of Johannesburg Main Prize for South African Writing in English as well as the 2017 K. Sello Duiker Memorial Prize – exploring one of Nobel Laureate
JM Coetzee’s most beguiling protagonists would have presented various challenges, least of all doing justice to this storied creation.

The novel is a response to Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K, the heralded fiction in which a “simpleton”, Michael K, attempts to take his mother back to her rural home as South Africa is gripped by civil war.

Either oblivious to or unconcerned with what is happening around him, even when directly affected by these events, Michael K’s humble needs and disconnectedness make him a triumph of the human spirit amid the chaos.

It is the detached nature of this character that Mohlele seeks to explore and off-set against his own plot and theme: that of aspiring poet Miles living for 31 months in “Dust Island, a seemingly forgotten outpost far flung from Cape Town”, where he encounters the arcane solitude and routines of Michael K.

When Michael K passes, Coetzee himself comes to pay tribute, heightening Miles’s curiosity about this individual.

Miles then returns home to Johannesburg, where he once worked as a bureaucrat but now faces an existence pondering his literary ambitions.

Without an income but living in one of Africa’s most frenetic and demanding metropoles, the spectre of Michael K haunts his days, as he draws parallels between the materialism of modern life and how little was deemed necessary by Dust Island’s most fabled resident.

Literary novels are not to everyone’s taste, given the complexities and intertextualities that arise.

A reading of the Life & Times of Michael K would certainly enhance that of this particular novel, given that Mohlele is so clearly versed with nuances of Coetzee’s central character.

Let it also be said, however, that in Mohlele’s prose there lies sincere enjoyment.

His passion for words and how he pays careful respect to their constructions, and his flowing, expressive depictions of existence – mundane or otherwise – make him a writer of supreme ability.