NTHIKENG MOHLELE WRITES like an angel. His material flows so smoothly that you just cannot stop reading it, drinking in all the rhythm and song of the concatenation of the words he’s chosen and how they juxtapose and interface. But there, also, lies the rub. This work, premised on a character devised by JM Coetzee in 1983 sails away on its own sense of possibility and as a result, the read, while abstractly beautiful, doesn’t offer much in the denouement department.
Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K gave voice to a socially-disabled character, born with a harelip who travels alone and with no resources through the harshness of South African landscape to visit his mother’s birth place in the off-the-beaten-track Western Cape village of Prince Albert. It’s a kind of a take on some of the premises informing William Faulkner’s 1930 novel As I Lay Dying, as it offers an important foray in what it means to be poor, disabled and alone in a country riven by racism. It was also the novel that won Coetzee the coveted Booker Prize that year.
Mohlele’s character Miles, who is written in the first person, meets “Michael K” at the other end of his life, eating raw pumpkin and subsisting with birds, but the focus of his prose slips in and out of sharpness in this text, as “Miles” contemplates the dementia of his father, his desire to have sex with his young maid and his relationship with a man who was once his university professor. On a level, the give and take between mentor and mentee might remind you of the dialogues in Leonhard Praeg’s Imitation, but that is where the similarity ends.
You emerge from this text feeling like you’ve just returned from an immersion in beautiful poetry, but you’re less haunted by the idea of narrative than you might like to be. Mohlele’s Michael K teeters toward the self-indulgent, the self-consciously meditative for meditation’s sake and the overly reflexive. Names are dropped all over the place and if you don’t recognise them, or appreciate their value, no mercy is offered by way of context. His references to Coetzee as “the laureate in the Land Rover” smack of sense of writerly self-deprecation that is both bitter and jealous, and while there are astonishingly powerful ideas informing this literary novel, they’re not drawn out and given the kind of attention or voice they warrant.
Thus, Michael K becomes a bit of a hollow read filled with gem-like experiences in which you reach at and discover snippets of South African values in small interregnums along the way.
- Michael K by Nthikeng Mohlele is published by the Picador Africa, Johannesburg (2018).