Thursday, February 7, 2013

On the Desire to Escape from History: J. M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K. and Tengiz Abuladze’s The Plea

Personally, I don’t think a person has to actively and positively contribute to humanity in order to be a “good person.” I think it’s enough to not actively fuck things up for other people.  So, by this logic, a hermit is a good person, even if he or she isn’t actually doing anything for anybody.  Because they are arguably doing a good thing by not running around raping and murdering people.  Call me crazy, but I think that’s a good thing.

Now, if you were to ask me, “James, what is your least favorite J. M. Coetzee novel?” I would probably say, “The Life and Times of Michael K.” This 1983 novel by the South African (now Australian) master is a relentlessly bleak and unpleasant catalogue of horrors (what we in the industry would call “bleak chic”).  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with writing a “depressing” book; take anything written by Thomas Bernhard, for example.  But whereas Bernhard writes with great stylistic inventiveness and gusto, Coetzee’s style is dry and unadorned and The Life and Times of Michael K. becomes downright tedious after awhile (and, always one to qualify things, I must say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a dry and unadorned style.  It’s the coupling of this style with Coetzee’s choice of subject matter that sinks Michael K.)

What is Michael K. about?

Thank you, good question.  The titular Michael K. is a borderline mentally impaired man of mixed racial ancestry (“colored,” in the abhorrent Apartheid parlance) living in a South Africa descending into civil war.  Now, Michael K. isn’t interested in participating in the civil war, or joining sides, or serving his country, or any kind of bullshit like that.  Michael K. would just like to be left alone to eke out a meager living by himself (at one point he digs himself a hole in the ground and survives off of a small garden he sets up).  But society and the forces of history won’t leave Michael K. be.  They insist on pushing him around, impeding his freedom of movement, and even interning him in a prison camp.  And they just can’t fucking understand that the man doesn’t want to participate.  History is a horror show and Michael K. may not be that bright, but he still recognizes it as such. 

I think The Life and Times of Michael K. is the best artistic depiction I’ve yet encountered of the desire to escape from history.  And so even though I didn’t enjoy reading it, Coetzee’s novel has influenced my worldview despite itself.  I can’t help but see the Michael K.’s in society who just want to be left alone.  Even in the most horrendous of circumstances, I find it hard to blame those who wish to maintain their neutrality.  Especially in a war situation.  What, you don’t want to leave home, injure and kill people, and maybe get injured and killed yourself?  Well of course you don’t.  Hell, that’s just downright sensible.  And I’m not going to call you a coward or a traitor for it.

Now, this brings me to Georgian-Soviet director Tengiz Abuladze’s 1968 film, The Plea (and apparently it’s Georgian cinema month here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus, just as December was Japanese cinema month). 
The Plea (Molba in Russian, Vedreba in Georgian; or possibly the other way around).
Now, I must confess that I don’t know much about Georgian history, or cinema for that matter (which is a shame, I’ll have to rectify this at some point), so I’m not quite sure when the action of The Plea takes place, but the men in this movie have guns but they also wear chain mail.  Maybe it’s anachronistic (again, don’t know much about Georgian history, couldn’t tell you).  But the film follows a warrior of the Khevsar tribe who refuses to cut off the hands of their enemies, the Kistans (the Khevsars are Christians, the Kistans are Muslims).  Now, the warrior doesn’t seem to be a full-blown pacifist; he’ll still kill Kistans (and the Kistans steal the Khevsars’ horses!) but he doesn’t want to cut off their hands and keep them as trophies (much as Japanese samurai used to cut off their enemies’ heads so as to prove that they’d killed them; apparently it wasn’t enough to boast about your prowess in battle, you needed to show physical proof of it as well).  The warrior takes it even further, and offers the sacrifice of a cow to implore God to send the soul of his latest victim to Heaven (even though the victim was a Muslim!) (Oh, and I’m pretty sure they actually killed a cow for this scene). Well, despite the fact that our hero seems to be the best warrior that the Khevsars have, they can’t tolerate his deviation from tradition and religious orthodoxy, so they burn his house and his food and drive him into exile.

Having broken with his tribe, the warrior makes the mistake of thinking that he’s escaped from the historical conditions that govern the actions of Khevsars and Kistans alike.  And so, when he comes upon a Kistan hunter, he accepts his offer of hospitality and shelters at his hut.  And the other Kistans find out about this, and they capture the warrior and prepare to execute them.  And his host thinks this is outrageous—to violate the laws of hospitality!—but what is he thinking?  The warrior has killed Kistans, and he’s a Christian, and he fell right into their hands, for Christ’s sake, how can they not kill him?  And so they beat up the host to illustrate their point and then they kill our hero.  And so that’s what the two of them get for trying to escape from history, the dictates of which are cruel and barbaric.

I think it noteworthy that—at least from my perspective, largely ignorant as I am of Georgian and Caucasian history—but it seems that the Khevsars and the Kistans have very little that separates them.  They dress the same, their houses look the same, their economic activities are the same.  The major difference seems to be religion, but whether it’s Christianity or Islam, the outcome of their religious fervor is the same: a desire to kill “infidels” (as they call each other) and a blind devotion to tradition.  And fanatical religious or cultural orthodoxy will kill you as sure as Apartheid will.  And history will remain implacably cruel to the Khevsar warriors and the Michael K.’s of the world.

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