The barrow mentality : unrecognized dilemmas of Michael K

Par Zbigniew BIALAS
Publication en ligne le 28 mai 2013

Table des matières


Texte intégral

One day the barrow disappeared.
He shrugged off the loss. 1


1Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee is an optimistic book but it will take some bending over backwards to justify this apparently ridiculous statement. The essay to follow is an attempt at interpreting mainly the mythical layers of the novel. I am not focusing on overtly political or historical contexts, liberal or antiliberal attitudes, the anatomy of violence, aspects of racial prejudice, modernity and/or postmodernity of Coetzee’s writing, since all of these issues have more than ample critical coverage already. 2

2Shrugging off the loss of the barrow is easier said than done, especially if one happens to be a qualified gardener (p. 5) and if the barrow is also used as the vehicle serving a crucial expedition. My revolutionary notion of "barrow mentality" will probably not open new doors in the understanding of White South African culture but it is very handy for the purposes of this essay. The label of "mentality" refers naturally to a frame of mind. The symbol of the barrow adequately reflects the two central mythological concerns/obsessions of a whole lot of White South African fiction, and Life and Times… in particular :

31. exploration via expedition (Michael K uses the barrow in a way reminiscent of the pioneers)

42. exploration via cultivation or gardening in the wilderness (Michael K is a gardener ; he uses the barrow as a tool).

5The arising mixture of the two myths : the "active", "mobile" Myth of Quest and the "static" Arcadian/Edenic Myth of peaceful enclosure is comprised neatly in the image of a barrow. Losing the barrow can be a harrowing experience symbolising getting rid – whether intentionally or not – of the two mental pillars simultaneously.

6In the writings of J.M. Coetzee the shadows of expeditions frequently reappear, just like in the output of other South African writers from the nineteenth century onwards. In Waiting for the Barbarians the reader encounters at least two journeys of exploration : one is undertaken by the Magistrate and one by the Imperial Army. 3 Here also the reader is confronted with the specific motivations for most of the expeditions : either pure exploitation, obviously, or curiosity : "the insatiable desire to increase the Knowledge of the Barbarians" 4 ; it can also be a search for one’s own identity 5 which is frequently the case with contemporary White South African writing (A. Brink's Instant in the Wind6, W. Stockenstrom’s Expedition to the Baobab Tree7, to mention just two examples). Foe, 8Dusklands9 and In the Heart of the Country10, all of them quite openly explore both the frontier experience and the pastoral romance.

7Life and Times… is also the story of a multiple quest, of a complex mental journey but the reason for Michael K's expedition is apparently neither exploitation, nor curiosity ; not even so much a search for his identity – if it is possible not to search for one's identity, when one is fulfilling the basic rite of quest. First Michael K carries his dying mother and then he is on the run. An act of escape can be – not always explicitly – a prime mover for an expedition. There are sufficient examples for this in all cultures. Yet, at face value, both instances of Michael's journeying do not seem to follow the patterns of what is expected from an expedition. One of the aims of this paper is to reveal some subtle hints of the standard expedition account within the apparently non-expedition narrative. One interpretative possibility, the easiest one perhaps, would be to state that the novel is an intertextual parody. Yet, there exist alternative possibilities. All expeditions require space(s) and time. The plot of the novel is set neither in the distant past of the pioneers, nor in the empty, unlabelled territories ruled by the hostile spirit of Adamastor ; the narrative does not yield easily to the patterns set by either classical travelogues and expedition accounts (eg. Bulpin11), traditional adventure stories (eg. Vaughan 12), or contemporary revisionist expedition books (see eg. : Brink, Stockenstrom). Though a non-expedition book, the novel uses, rather perversely, numerous elements typical of standard expedition accounts. The opening of the novel, for instance, can be seen as a distorted narrative of exploration, especially in the parts devoted to Michael's journey with his dying mother. The overall symbolism and the choice of certain topoi reveal striking links between classical expedition accounts and Coetzee's novel.

8Another field, as if juxtaposed – but I am almost scared to use the word "juxtaposition" in the times of post-structuralism and political correctness – to the myth of pioneering exploration is a realm of the Edenic, pastoral, or horticultural tradition. This is the myth of peaceful sedimentation ; settlement, Judaeo-Christian Garden. In his White Writing, a collection of essays on White South African literary tradition, Coetzee looks closely at the myth of the Garden and focuses on the ideas of the landscape, the pastoral, the gardenesque13. Once one finds/has a Garden, one wants to Keep it and maybe cultivate it. The Garden can be Lost (Paradise Lost) and it can be Regained (Paradise Regained). Between the loss and the re-gain one frequently experiences expulsion. Expulsion entails failure in the garden. Now the reader arrives at what appears to be the two poles of the novel. Expedition is a form of expulsion too. What to do with volitional expulsion/expedition is rather a psychological than a literary problem. Eternal recurrence of losing and regaining and journeying in quest of another Paradise may well be one of the unsolved possible Key notions of the novel. If the initial conflict between the two myths of travelling and cultivating can be negotiated, if reaffirmation can be found, if final reconciliation can be suggested – surely it would mean that the novel is optimistic ?


9It is interesting to see how "classically" Coetzee arranges the elements forming the topos of the expedition in the initial part of the novel, i.e. Michael's journey with his dying mother ; only after all formative elements of an expedition are unsuccessfully applied can the protagonist admit his failure as an anxious traveller.

10People who originally landed at Sea Point, which was not called Sea Point then, were confronted first with a very practical task, if they wanted to travel inland : the need to possess a vehicle which would help them trek further. Like in American literature, the cart symbolises being on the move, extending borders and pioneering. The trek in Coetzee's novel seems to be a postmodern parody of the South African travels of exploration. This parodistic or semi- parodistic tradition is not entirely new. H.C. Bosman's short story, The Rooinek14, was an equally bitter narrative of the tragic journey, where the cart and all the preparation plus the zeal of the trekkers did not guarantee a successful completion of the task. If one is to follow parodistic semblances of Michael K's journey with his dying mother, one cannot escape the comparison with W. Faulkner's As ILay Dying 15 in this context. However, leaving Faulknerian parallels conveniently aside for other critics, I would rather invoke South African tradition. Certain stories by Pauline Smith, apart from Bosman's The Rooinek can serve as a fine example. There are clear parallels between Smith's short story The Pain16 and the episode where Michael K takes his mother to hospital (a village simpleton, burdened by the beloved member of the family, looking for a hospital in the town ; the clash between expectations and the hospital as an institution ; being taken away by the staff ; lying in wait at the door, etc. – these parallels can be multiplied). Literary tradition of trek to which Coetzee refers ever so often in a very subtle way, specifies the requirements for an expedition : making the cart, planning the route and finally experiencing the hardships of the journey itself. Michael K, a caricature of the pioneer in many senses, duly performs all these requirements.

11Preparing for the expedition Michael K. produces the cart all by himself ; showing early capitalist – or godlike – ingenuity, he experiments (like Robinson Crusoe ?) creating a vehicle for carrying his mother away :

Working in the alley behind the flats, he broke up an old crate and Knocked together a platform two feet square, with a raised back, which he lashed to the wheelbarrow with wire. Then he tried to coax his mother out for a ride. (p. 13)

12The first attempt is not very successful, so he experiments further. The act of creation can be repeated, redefined and refined :

He thought of building a hand-cart with a box as body mounted on a pair of bicycle wheels, but could not think where to find an axle. (p. 14)

13Finally, with cabalistic precision, he makes the third attempt :

In the morning he broke down the old barrow platform-seat and rebuilt it as a narrow three-sided box with two long handles, which he wired in place over the axle. He now had a squat rickshaw which, though hardly of sturdy build, would take his motherr's weight (p. 24)

14The cart is ready and journeying with the mother can almost start. What is needed now, according to the traditional pattern, is planning the direction of the journey – the geographically extendable space. Michael's expedition will be a repetition of the first treks of the Whites who landed in Southern Africa. Anna K – the mother – was employed as a domestic servant by a family living in Sea Point overlooking the Atlantic Ocean (p. 7). Thus, the journey with the mother starts at the very tip of Africa and the destination is a somewhat obscurely described farm near Prince Albert in the area of Karoo, a natural direction for any sensible expedition inland – parallel to the line of the coast. Michael places his mother in the barrow and sets off. "He settled his mother in the cart in Sea Point." (p. 28).

15The sentence quoted above is truly remarkable. It provides the starting point for the expedition ; it also provides numerous interpretative possibilities. It contains the proper name of "Sea Point" and therefore suggests the direction of the journey – inland. It also employs the image of the barrow turned "cart", fortifying the mood of the exploratory literature and adventure story. There is a hint of the exotic for a non-South African reader. On the other hand, the sentence relates "settling the mother". Settling – as an activity – is rather the end of the expedition, not its beginning. This is the first paradoxical turn of the traditional myth. Additionally, "settling the mother" is a reversal of the established order of things, where the mother settles ; here she is settled. Moreover, settling the mother in the barrow functioning as a cart is not settling her at all in the sense of giving her a specific place for continuing her life. Settling is the domain of the myth of the Garden and here it becomes the domain of the myth of Quest. One can hardly maintain that the mother is "settled" when she is bouncing in the barrow. Still, she is settled in the barrow. Grammatically there is no difference between being settled in the barrow and being settled in Athens or Poitiers. In one sentence the paradoxical conflict between the two myths is summarised neatly.

16The journey itself, a parody of the expedition, abounds in quotations of popular images. First, Michael notices that the country is empty. That is when the journey becomes a real exploration of space :

He was struck by the emptiness of the roads. There was such stillness that he could hear birdsong. (p. 29)

17When the first attempt at an expedition with the mother fails, the travellers set off two days later. If one doubts whether the narrative does describe an expedition, it is enough to pay attention to passages suggesting the ideas of a "venture", or even "first venture" (p. 31) – pioneering – the possibility of "spending many nights on the road" (p. 31), "appetite for travel to far places" (p. 31), seeking out a stopping place for the night in the "half-world of straggling roots and damp earth and subtle rotten smells" (p. 33), "eating cold food" (p. 33), meeting hostile strangers with "carving Knives" (p. 34) who disappear in the bush a moment later (p. 35).

18After Anna K's death the cart assumes a different function, becoming a real pioneering fantasy gadget with respect to time and space :

Dressed in his new clothes, the white jacket and black pants and beret, he pushed his cart where and when he wished (emphasis mine ; Z.B.) (p. 46)

19"Where he wished" refers to the freedom of motion, the freedom of space – which is of course illusory in the context of the whole novel – "when he wished" refers, by the same token, to the freedom of time, which is again ironical, since in the Times of Michael K. freedom of Time is an utter illusion. Trekking with the cart, being armed with the illusion of freedom appears impossible. The very same page of the text offers the paragraph which serves as a motto for this paper :

One day the barrow disappeared. He shrugged off the loss. (p. 46)

20This is the end of Michael's original attempt at an expedition. The time comes for the other "venture" : return to gardening.


21Michael K is a gardener and the reader learns it with the very first pages. This fact should not be overlooked, if one is to say anything meaningful about the novel. I think it is made clear by the development of the narrative and its multi-layered symbolism. Not only does the topos of the Garden refer broadly to the Garden Myth – return to innocence and happiness – or Eden (to suggest eg. Judaeo-Christian interpretation of the Garden, as exemplified by Kipling's short story, The Gardener)17. It refers also to a more specific idea of the African Eden ; a concept that never really materialised because "simplicity" and "peace", prerogatives of Eden, are labelled here as idleness and laziness with reference to its inhabitants – the Hottentots 18. Thirdly, the Garden evokes the popular notion of the Cape as the Garden of Africa 19, and the Cape is the setting of the beginning and the ending of the novel. Last, but definitely not least, it refers the reader to Coetzee's own book of literary criticism, White Writing (and here I am in the danger of entering the uncomfortable ground of authorial intentions, so I'd better leave it at the threshold of the "author function" as defined by Foucault 20).

22To categorise the protagonist's activities further, one might add that Michael K appears to be, of necessity, an ecologically minded gardener, to use a fashionable expression. When he lives on the Visagie farm, trying to cultivate the garden without even being seen – to cultivate without cultivating, because the results of cultivating the garden must be visible – he shuns any form of exploitation of the land that would leave traces (leaving traces is the domain of the expedition and gardening alike) :

Even his tools should be of wood and leather and gut, materials the insects would eat when one day he no longer needed them. (p. 143)

23He fails secret gardening like he failed open gardening and the expedition. Symbolically, it is represented by changing the BARROW (which is lost by now) into a BURROW. Michael comes to create a very negative attitude towards a barrow, which – as the attribute of an expedition this time – does not offer any sense of safety :

K had a vision of a man pushing a barrow loaded with household goods, and a woman trudging behind him, and two children, one holding the woman's hand, the other seated on top of the pile in the barrow clutching a mewling Kitten, all dead tired, the wind blowing dust in their faces and sending grey clouds scudding across the sky – surely such people had more cause to fear him, a wild man all skin and bone and rags rising up out of the earth at the hour of batflight, than he had to fear them ? (p. 145)

24This is juxtaposed (unfortunately) to apparent safety of a burrow which has the Kafkaesque function of the hiding place :

my burrow disguised with mud (p. 145)

He went back to his burrow and spent the day in hiding (p. 147)

He crept into the burrow, stretched out listlessly, and closed his eyes (p. 153)

The first day passed when K did not come out of his burrow at all (p. 162)

porcupine burrows (p. 170)

25Coetzee's preoccupation with the burrow at this particular moment of the narrative is not, I hope, a concept which I am making up for the sake of the essay. There is more to the "burrow" than mere phonetic closeness to the "barrow". My paper is an essay on the barrow in Coetzee's narrative. Coetzee wrote an essay on The Burrow by Kafka. Coetzee's essay on The Burrow begins : "Kafka's story "The Burrow" begins : I have completed the construction of my burrow and it seems to be successful." 21 These words could be uttered by Michael K, who says instead, "Would it not be better to bury myself in the bowels of the earth than become a creature of theirs ?" (p. 146). For us, an important implication of this move is that the moment Michael K uses the burrow instead of the barrow, he is acknowledging the failure of his gardening :

He did not emerge from the burrow at all during daylight hours, and he watered the surviving vines so meagerly that the leaves drooped and the tendrils withered, (p. 154)

26By the end of the first part Michael K. is expelled from his garden and transported to the camp. Just like after his mother's death : then he was taken to the camp because he was not able to cope with the requirements of the expedition. Michael K always ends up in a camp when he fails to meet the requirements of the myth. It is like in a game : if you are not successful, you go back to where you started.


27The second part of the novel offers not only a change of the narrator but also a change of the perspective. Michael K – a defeated explorer and an equally defeated gardener – suddenly becomes an object of gardening himself. After all, he is "picked up" (p. 177) in the Karoo like an interesting specimen of a withering flower from the semi-desert. Now Michael K will remain in suspension for a time. The camp of Kenilworth is neither the road nor the garden. It is a stop-over before Michael's realisation of failure and a subsequent attempt at reconciling the two divergent myths.

28In the third part the protagonist goes back to Sea Point – the point of departure. His return is not so much an act of escape from the camp but an admission of failure and the lost barrow is a symbol of this predicament. Therefore, if the first part of the novel can be read as presentation of the two myths inappropriately applied, the second part depicts Michael's growing awareness of defeat. The third part offers constructive conclusions.

29Michael K summarises his pitiable story to the people he stays with for a brief period of time. Since the story of failure is complete, Michael K uses the past tense with respect to both mythical ordeals, distancing himself in this way from both the gardening and the expedition. Gardening becomes an act of the distant past and the expedition was a complete disaster :

30a) I was a gardener once, for the Council. That was a long time ago. (p. 239)

31b) Then I had to leave and take my mother into the country… She died… (pp. 239-240)

32A moment later, having probably understood the reasons of his drama for the first time, Michael K alters his temporal perspective. No longer does he need the remoteness of the past tense, as in "I was a gardener once. That was a long time ago…". He uses the present perfect tense and introduces the notion of truth, and truth can be understood here in Heideggerian sense as something which is not concealed :

.. the truth is I have been a gardener, first for the Council, later for myself, and gardeners spend their time with their noses to the ground, (p. 247)

33Stressing the fact that he Keeps his nose to the ground, he reaffirms the basic attachment to the soil characteristic of the myth of the Garden, but for the first time it is also a direct hint that reconciling the two myths is possible. Keeping the nose to the ground can indirectly refer to the myth of the expedition too, if one considers reading the map and sticking to the topographical data. Yet, directly Michael K has not yet reached this understanding.

34A moment later he is ready to approve of the gardening part of the myth, when he affirms openly and repeatedly, in the present tense by now, the biological attachment to the ground :

It excited him, he found, to say, recklessly, the truth, the truth about me. I am a gardener, he said again, aloud. [...] I am more like an earthworm, he thought, which is also a Kind of gardener. Or a mole, also a gardener… (p. 248)

35The ending of the novel offers a tentative solution consisting in creating a blend of the two warring motifs. Michael K finally comes up with the idea of planting the seeds at a wide time spread (temporal aspect) over a vast area (spatial aspect), then drawing a map (spaces for the expedition) and touring the places (an act of expedition) to water the plants (gardening itself). Thus, he ultimately achieves an understanding of how to reconcile the two myths :

I should have planted them one at a time spread out over miles of veld in patches of soil no larger than my hand, and drawn a map and Kept it with me at all times so that every night I could make a tour of the sites to water them (emphasis mine) (p. 249)

36As soon as Michael K achieves the moment of blending the two arch-motifs, he reaches mental harmony. He is even able to plan the next expedition in a barrow – now revealing perfect barrow mentality in both senses. Michael K finds a moral worthy of Ecclesiastes or Nietzschean eternal recurrence, or maybe T.S. Eliot's Prufrock : "there is time for everything" (p. 249). If so, Life and Times of Michael K is indeed a very optimistic book.


1 J.M. Coetzee, Life and Times of Michael K, London, Seeker and Warburg, 1983, p. 46.

2  See eg. Charles Malan, Introduction : Race and the Writer. Inleiding : Ras en die skrywer, in Charles Malan (ed.). Race and Literature/Ras en Literatuur, Pinetown, Owen Burgess Publishers, 1987, p. 8 ; Es'kia Mphahlele, The Tyranny of Place and Aesthetics. The South African Case, in ibid., p. 48 ; Landeg White and Tim Couzens (eds), Literature and Society in South Africa, Pinelands : Maskew Miller Longman, 1984, p. 208.

3 J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1982.

4 Erhard Reckwitz, "I Am Not Myself Anymore :" Problems of Identity in Writing by White South Africans, English in Africa, Vol. 20, No 1, May 1993, p. 5.

5 ibid. pp. 5-7.

6 Andre Brink, An Instant in the Wind, London, W.H. Allen, 1980.

7  Wilma Stockenstrom, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, (tr. by J.M. Coetzee), London, Faber, 1983.

8 J.M. Coetzee, Foe, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1983.

9 J.M. Coetzee, Dusklands, Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1974.

10 J.M. Coetzee, In the Heart of the Country, Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1982.

11  T.V. Bulpin, Lost Trails of the Transvaal, Cape Town, Books of Africa, 1983.

12 Iris Vaughan, O Valiant Hearts, Cape Town, Timmins Publishers, 1984.

13 J.M. Coetzee, White Writing, On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1988, pp. 2-6.

14 Herman Charles Bosman, Mafeking Road, Cape Town, Human and Rousseau, 1991, pp. 123-139.

15 William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1976.

16 Pauline Smith, The Little Karoo, Cape Town, Africasouth Paperbacks, 1990, pp. 1 – 20.

17  Rudyard Kipling, Poems and Short Stories, Moscow, Raduga, 1983, pp. 334 – 345.

18 J.M. Coetzee, White Writing,... pp. 25 – 31.

19 Cf. eg. the preface to Nancy Gardiner's A Visitors Guide to Gardens in South Africa, Cape Town, C. Struik, 1988, p. 7 : "In many respects South Africa's botanical heritage is unique, the country – particularly the south­western and southern Cape – being superabundantly endowed with plant species."

20 Michel Foucault, What is an Author, in : David Lodge (ed.), Modern Criticism and Theory, London, Longman, 1988, pp. 197 – 210.

21 After : J.M. Coetzee, Time, Tense, and Aspect in Kafka's "The Burrow", in : David Attwell (ed.), Doubling the Point, Essays and Interviews ; J.M. Coetzee, Cambridge, Mass., London, Harvard University Press, 1992, p. 210.

Pour citer ce document

Par Zbigniew BIALAS, «The barrow mentality : unrecognized dilemmas of Michael K», Cahiers FoReLLIS - Formes et Représentations en Linguistique, Littérature et dans les arts de l'Image et de la Scène [En ligne], Archives (1993-2001), J. M. Coetzee, mis à jour le : 28/05/2013, URL :