The making of Michael K: Enigmatic character, enigmatic author
Nthikeng Mohlele retells the story of JM Coetzee’s character Michael K — through the eyes of the narrator
Some might think that plucking the main protagonist from the work of a literary genius like JM Coetzee is a bit like tweaking the tiger’s whiskers.
But this was not Nthikeng Mohlele’s intention. He has spent at least a third of his life reading and rereading Coetzee’s novel The Life and Times of Michael K. At the last count he’d read it about 30 times, "for fun, learning, reflection", he explains.
Years ago a teacher handed him the Nobel laureate and Booker Prize winner’s novel Disgrace and then urged him to read Michael K as well. "It just blew my mind," says Mohlele, who is in Johannesburg to promote the book. He is from Limpopo where, as he puts it, he is a public servant for the state.
In both authors’ books Michael K is an introvert and recluse who hardly utters a word. Mohlele places Coetzee in the novel, also as an introvert, so readers only catch a tiny glimpse of him.
Michael K is a depressing character with a cleft palate. He is enigmatic, sad "and he’s got a crooked nose, is skinny, socially awkward, sleeps a lot but — he is very cerebral", Mohlele says.
Coetzee’s book was set in a time of a raging South African civil war, during which Michael K attempts to move his ill mother from her domestic worker life in Cape Town to her home in Prince Albert. She dies in the wheelbarrow he uses to trundle her home.
Mohlele’s Michael K is seen through the eyes of the narrator, Miles, who lives in an imaginary and desolate place. Dust Island feels like the Karoo.
Michael K lives in a room for one — in a skew, pyramid-like tomb that he built — and he gardens, growing mostly pumpkins and watermelons, whose seeds he devours in a manner that disgusts the narrator. But Miles hopes, by spending time with his curious neighbour, his aspirations to be a poet will bear fruit.
"Not unexpectedly, Michael K was a source of some curiosity.… What does the K in your name stand for, I asked him, to which he shrugged his shoulders and continued nibbling on a piece of pumpkin," Mohlele writes.
"Was it an initial, a nickname or the first letter of a last name — Koekemoer, for instance, or Kloete? I persisted, but he just mused and walked away."
Mohlele does not change his literary tune when the question is asked again. His gentle gaze and friendly manner remain impenetrable on the topic.
In the novel, circumstances demand that Miles returns to his Sunninghill home in Johannesburg where he has amusing, intellectual discussions with Von Ludwig, a scholar of philosophy. They discuss Kurt Vonnegut, Maya Angelou, Ben Okri, Saul Bellow and Bessie Head, but never use their first names.
Mohlele eventually suggests Miles has a surname and dubs him Miles M. Interesting then, that Coetzee is only referred to by his first name, John.
There is, to put it mildly, not a lot of action although Miles and Von Ludwig attend the annual Joburg Joy of Jazz festival with stars who have jetted in from around the world, "carrying in the sound of horns and guitars, the wails and dirges of Mississippi, music that oozed from the veins of slaves".
They visit the Johannesburg Book Fair, "where we hop from one panel to the next like men demented — invigorated, scandalised, dazzled by the beauty of literary minds".
Mohlele is passionate about words. He grew up in Tembisa on the East Rand in the turbulent 1980s at the height of the state of emergency. "So I’ve seen it all," he says with calm resignation. "And when it got so bad that I couldn’t go to school, I went to live with my grandparents in Limpopo."
It was in Limpopo where he interfaced with culture at its primary source. He attended a Catholic school where he matriculated before completing a BA in dramatic art, publishing studies and African literature at Wits University.
During his tertiary education he acted for a while, taking the lead role in Can Themba’s The Suit. Film director and producer Darrell Roodt was one of Mohlele’s external examiners and gave him 92% for acting.
Malcolm Purkey, the acclaimed actor, director and playwright, told Mohlele that he was one of his best students. But he chose not to pursue an acting career, "because I read the Life and Times of Michael K", he explains.
He was "into ideas", curling up in libraries; absorbing books on architecture, lighting and design, "because I just wanted to soak up the world around me. It was a daunting curiosity."
Mohlele is the author of four critically acclaimed novels: The Scent of Bliss, Small Things, Rusty Bell and Pleasure.
The latter won the 2016 University of Johannesburg’s main prize for South African Writing in English as well as the 2017 K Sello Duiker Memorial Prize at the South African Literary Awards.
It was also long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s most valuable literary prize.
Mohlele writes his books on his cellphone, "so I can write any time". He shows me a paragraph, "there … may be 23,000 entries like that, but I know where each … goes. Even if you woke me at 3am, I could tell you where each one belongs as I’m always aware of the broad character development, of themes, mood, climax and resolution of the story."
He does not enjoy writing on a computer, "where a page goes on forever. It gives you a false sense of importance."
Given his craving for words and his strong desire to be a poet, it’s something of a surprise to learn that he has always known exactly what his future holds. "I’d like to study music full-time, to be a composer."
Jazz is where his real passion lies, which explains his frequent mention of Miles Davis in his book and in his conversation. He creates music with magnificent words, each one carefully chosen.