In a fictional Central American dictatorship, based on Guatemala of Asturias‘s youth, the military’s highest ranking general is early one morning murdered in the street by a mentally ill beggar. The president takes the opportunity to pin the murder on another highranking general, suspected of plotting a revolution, and it sets off a chain of events that reaches into every fabric of society.
The story is in The President told sporadically from a number of different perspectives, which could easily have turned out erratic and difficult to follow, but it works seamlessly and the here very subtle hints of Asturias’s magical realism ends up feeling more real than reality itself. As a result the reader efficiently gets provided with a glimpse into what it’s like to live in a dictatorship where absolutely anyone at any given time can find themselves inescapably beneath the bootheel of a law that is always “righteous” by definition, except a president who is unconditionally above it, and a terrifying understanding of how a people, out of fear, essentially can oppress itself simply by constantly autocorrecting the “truth” into whatever suits the president best for the moment.
The President is however not quite as focused and consistent in its voice, and therefore not quite as excellent and captivating, as for instance Men of Maize but it’s a very strong, passionately angry, early effort from an eventual Nobel laureate.
4,5/5 rounded down to 4
Michael K was born with a hare lip and his mother, not liking the sight of him, sent him to an institution for orphaned, unwanted and unmanageable boys where he was raised. Now a grown up in a war torn South Africa he lives by himself in Cape Town and works as a gardener at a local park, his only developed social relationship being that with his now elderly mother. Michael’s mother has worked all her life as a housekeeper for wealthy families and is now, of too bad and fragile health to perform her former duties, allowed a small room to lodge in and kept alive by the last family she worked for. When her street gets evacuated and Michael’s mother is left behind forgotten Michael builds a one-seat pushcart out of his bike and sets off with her out of the city towards the countryside and the farm where she was born and wishes to die.
Life and Times of Michael K is a war story, but from a perspective not often considered. It’s a story about war, but it’s not a story about bravery, camaraderie or disillusionment of soldiers; it’s not a story about cruelty or callousness of generals and it’s not a story about noble sacrifices of the general public. What it is is an exploration of the question
‘What happens in times of war to those who don’t fit the narrow mold for people of use or interest to the war? What happens to the homeless, the sick, the old and the cripplingly poor? What happens in a war to all those who don’t have a stake in the fight and before the war broke out were minding their own business with their hands full just staying alive?”.
Coetzee’s prose is poetic in its simplicity yet powerfully understated and the story is told with a rare sense of empathy that manages to stare the most primitive and animalistic aspects of human nature dead in the face without mock, fright or condescension. The result is a strangely uplifting experience in all it’s dark and brutal honesty.
I’m getting into a bit of a habit of writing book reviews on Goodreads. So if you’re interested to know what I think about some other authors’ work this place right here will now be the place to be.