Coetzee's character given extended life

Author Nthikeng Mohlele is taking a break from writing
Author Nthikeng Mohlele is taking a break from writing

Award-winning author Nthikeng Mohlele never imagined that his fascination with a character from a 1980s novel would blossom into his fifth literary offering.

Mohlele picked up the pen from where acclaimed South African author JM Coetzee left off by orchestrating the evolution of a character from Coetzee's classic titled The Life and Times of Michael K.

Birthed from Coetzee's book, Mohlele's novel is simply titled Michael K.

In a recent interview with the Sowetan, Mohlele recalled how he first encountered Coetzee's work as a varsity student during 1995.

Fascinated by the wartime character who has little regard for food and falls into unusually long spells of sleep, Mohlele went on to read Coetzee's book 30 times in 15 years.

But it never occurred to him that one day he would write a novel paying homage to Coetzee's work.

"It was an organic growth of artistic pursuit. I never consciously planned to do that," Mohlele said.

For Mohlele, the charm behind Michael K as a character is how he insists on living a minimalist life in a society always hungry for worldly possessions and control.

He describes Michael K as a "powerless but very powerful character".

"It struck me because the character lived and acted outside of societal norms and expectations and was an extreme form of an introvert," he said.

Born in Limpopo but raised in Tembisa on the East Rand, Mohlele is no stranger to SA's literary circles having scripted titles such as Small Things, Pleasure and Rusty Bell.

Pleasure won him a few accolades including the 2016 University of Johannesburg main prize for South African writing.

In his latest novel, Mohlele employs a devastatingly beautiful arrangement of prose to convey a compelling tale.

The story of Michael K is carried through urban and rural landscapes familiar to most South Africans.

Although the task of following on the trail of a widely respected scribe might seem daunting, Mohlele said he was not nervous about writing the book.

"No, it was not nerve-wracking at all because I trust my craft as a writer and I believed then and I believe now that I knew enough about the book not to mess it up.

"It's up to the writer who does the sequel to mirror the original book and also give it new life in terms of ensuring that the character evolves."

Mohlele explained that the book tackles themes of power, beauty and interpersonal relations. He wants the reader to make up their own mind and decide which message
resonates with them.

"It is very relevant because of the human unit. Even a single person changes the world.

"I'm not trying to tell anyone anything. Honestly, all I'm doing is illuminating life as best as I see it without being prescriptive to readers or anyone else," he said.

Mohlele described his approach to telling the human story as one that does not
discriminate against race or status.

He believes today's generation of creators in music, art and literature are living in the midst of a renaissance.

"I may sound like a broken record, but it's true. We are living through a literary
renaissance that is bigger than the Drum era," he said.

While he is enjoying the positive reviews on his latest novel, Mohlele said he wants to take a break from writing for at least the next five years.