A pungent tale of ordeal and survival set in South Africa; Life and Times of Michael K, by J.M. Coetzee. New York: Viking. 184 pp. $13.95.
Of all the writers of recent eminence, South African novelist J.M. Coetzee embodies, as do few of his contemporaries, the idea that fiction should serve social and political uses. His divided, dangerous country is his subject, its injustice and its repressive impact on human personality his obsessive theme.
An early Coetzee novel, ''In the Heart of the Country'' (1977), presented as the diary of a troubled young South African farm woman, managed a surprisingly lyrical, meditative portrayal of her gradual surrender to her dark, violent surroundings. One sees in it traces of Doris Lessing's ''The Grass is Singing.''
Coetzee's next book, the well-received ''Waiting for the Barbarians'' (1980), showed clear gains in both originality and power. A spare, incisive story set in an unnamed empire that seeks out and oppresses ''barbarians,'' it's about a conscience-stricken magistrate, also nameless, who learns he must ally himself with the oppressed and wait for whatever resolution will come to all this turmoil.
Now, ''Life and Times of Michael K,'' which won this year's Booker Prize for British fiction, offers another pungent and challenging allegory: On one level, it's an impassioned (though understated) criticism of apartheid and its effects; on another it's a tale of ordeal and survival that reminds me of works as different (and, I suppose, similar) as ''The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe'' and Jerzy Kosinski's ''The Painted Bird.'' It's a strong, involving book, though deeply flawed by occasional redundancy and overwriting.
The story begins with a summary of the birth of its protagonist (a retarded boy born with a harelip) and of his childhood, much of which was spent in an institution. Then it focuses on his life in what we infer is the indefinite future. Michael is now 31, a gardener employed by the parks and gardens department of the city of Cape Town. He lives near, and attends closely to, his seriously ill mother. She prevails upon him to take her back to the northern inland district where she grew up on a farm, where she wants to die.
Cape Town is a hell they both dream of escaping - the center of a country ravaged by civil war, where everything has broken down, and everybody is suspect. Street bands have taken over empty buildings; even those lucky enough to be employed are vulnerable to ''the careless violence, the packed buses, the food queues, . . . sirens in the night, the curfew, . . .'' Yet amid this chaos, regulation thrives - and Michael and his mother finally must travel without permits, keeping to back roads to avoid patroling police vans.
En route, his mother grows weaker, and Michael takes her to a filthy, overcrowded hospital, where she dies. Now on his own, he travels both purposefully and aimlessly; his life settles into a rhythm of capture (in a railroad labor gang, a resettlement camp, a hospital ward) and escape.
What becomes central to his life is that farm of his mother's dreams, now abandoned. Eventually he does reach it and begins to work - only to lose it when its absent owners' grandson, a deserter from the army, returns surreptitiously. Fearing he will be made a servant, Michael moves on, sustained in his rootlessness and privation by images of ''the pleasures of digging and planting he had promised himself.''
Michael's later return to the farm occasions the book's best sequence - a painstaking, vividly suspenseful account of his efforts to keep his garden alive and flourishing, yet hidden from the eyes of the judging world. The efforts are to no avail. He is arrested and accused unaccountably of running a staging post for guerrillas operating out of the mountains.
In the story's latter stages, Coetzee briefly switches from omniscient narration to the sympathetic outpourings of the medical officer at a hospital ward, where Michael - starving and delirious - quietly, engimatically resists efforts to strengthen him. The medical officer appeals for his patient's release , insisting this gentle simpleton cannot be ''one of the insurgents''; but policy dictates that the fugitive must be an enemy of the state. It is the story Michael K. has heard all his life.
Eventually, having escaped again and returned to Cape Town, Michael is taken in by a ''family'' of whores and pimps. Though exhausted and enervated, he clings to a packet of seeds he hopes someday to plant - still a survivor and still a problem for the government that can neither kill him nor cure him.
As this summary shows, the incidents do tend to repeat themselves; perhaps that's unavoidable, given Coetzee's emphasis on his character's quiet, stubborn resilience.
More serious problems arise from the frequently elevated thoughts and language attributed to this simple soul. For example, we're told Michael thinks of himself, ''not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything as a speck upon the surface of an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant-feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust.'' Though the prose is lovely and haunting, I don't believe this character thinks those thoughts.
The book succeeds best when Coetzee presents Michael K as a kind of enigmatic , stubborn force. We see frequent evidence of his strange, delicately precise visionary ability: Ransacking somebody's vegetable garden, and hearing a sharp sound, ''he imagined a shot cracking out from the back window of the farm house, he imagined a huge Alsatian streaking out to attack him.'' This is powerful and convincing.
I don't discount this novel's excesses and awkwardnesses, but I do suggest that, with it, Coetzee has moved a step beyond the criticism of inhumanity, which and made memorable his ''Waiting for the Barbarians.'' In Michael K. he has given us a character who is nothing less than an embodiment of the survival instinct - and, in doing so, has taken his particular brand of allegorical fiction perhaps as far as it can possibly go.