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Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
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Life & Times of Michael K (1983)

by J.M. Coetzee

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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English (41)  Dutch (1)  Danish (1)  All languages (43)
Showing 1-5 of 41 (next | show all)
What an awesome book by an amazingly talented author. This is a story of a young man who despite the war all around him is determined to live his life his own way and the country that opposes him. ( )
  mlbelize | Jan 27, 2014 |
Why, oh why, can't Coetzee just write a book and let his readers interpret it for him? Why does this book need a commentary by an educated, guilty feeling doctor? Of course, to remind us that 'interpretation' is 'violence' and that it can never reach the 'real' thing, just as Friday has no tongue , and the Magistrate can't 'know' the 'traces' of torture on the girl, and Lucy's story is hers and can't be known by her father and so on and on and on world without end. If you believe that all this 'you can never know the real of Michael K' stuff is really just a smokescreen to fool the world into thinking that there is something to Michael K, you're missing out. But if you don't at least suspect that all this agnosticism-qua-people is a smokescreen, well, I don't know. Maybe you should read more critically, and think about how meaningless terms like 'authentic self' and 'real you' really are.

That said, Michael K is a great character in the tradition of Crusoe, Dostoevsky's idiot and various saints. That makes the book well worth reading. It does not, as many critics and reviewers seem to think, make him a role-model.

Also interesting to read this in the context of C's later work, which seems to endorse a morality of empathy: that the world would be a better place if we put ourselves in the shoes of other people, other animals and so on. That's probably true. But you can't have it both ways. Either we can more or less put ourselves in other beings' shoes; or they are ultimately unknowable and ought not to be violated by our disgusting interpretive techniques. Interesting that the later novels - which aren't even close to as good as this, or Barbarians, or Dusklands and so on - have the more cogent philosophical background. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
I feel like this book went right past me.
We follow Michael K., who leaves town with his sick mother to try and find the farm in which she grew up, and live there and not know poverty. Michael seems to be at least somewhat idiotic. He goes through various struggles and meets different people without seeming to grasp fully what is happening to him, and focuses only on his search for the farm.
This book therefore felt to me like something of a fable, and there must be some profound meaning to derive from watching this man struggle without caring for the society around him, but it eluded me.
Another reason why this book's meaning may have been lost on me is my lack of knowledge about South Africa. The book describes a seemingly dictatorial regime, but I can't tell if this is supposed to be realistic or if this is fictionised, for the purpose of writing a fable. ( )
  chlorine | Jul 26, 2013 |
Life & Times of Michael K is set in a version of apartheid South Africa in which a civil war is raging, though between whom and over what is never explicitly stated. Michael K is a gardener living in poverty in Cape Town with his mother. Michael is severely harelipped and somewhat simple-minded, though he is often taken to be more mentally impaired than he really is. The mother, who is dying, asks her son to take her back to the farm where she grew up. Unable to obtain the necessary travel permits, Michael smuggles his mother out of town in a hand cart. She soon dies, however, and Michael is left with her ashes to carry to a place he knows only by her description. He becomes a solitary fugitive, living off the land, until he is captured and sent to an internment camp.

The first thing that strikes you about this novel is that there is no mention of race whatsoever. We assume that Michael K is black simply from the way he is treated, just as we assume those in authority are white. This is a story set in South Africa and obviously reflecting the apartheid system, yet it clearly isn't the South Africa of past or present. By distancing the narrative from any specific time or issue, the author lets us see Michael K as an individual struggling against the establishment, not as a representative of an ethnic group or political cause. His physical and mental peculiarities make him an outsider even among his fellow outcasts.

The surname "K" is an obvious reference to the works of Franz Kafka, as is the fact that the government headquarters is referred to as "The Castle." Just like K in Kafka's novel The Castle, Michael K is an individual struggling to make sense of a system that contradicts itself at every turn. But unlike Kafka's K, Michael K eventually thwarts the system by withdrawing into his own identity and refusing to act or interact. Eventually it is the Castle which becomes baffled and frustrated trying to figure out K. ( )
1 vote StevenTX | Jul 26, 2013 |
Often the most powerful, most blisteringly conscious novels are written from the perspective of the naive. Whether it is the innocent naivety of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird or the simplistic worldview of Ignatius J. Reilly in a Confederacy of Dunces, or the practical clarity of Yossarian in Catch-22, naivety illuminates the world in a way that erudite characters often cannot achieve. Characters of limited intellectual capacity have a way (albeit filtered through the erudite minds of great writers) of boiling life's complexities down to simple concepts and reflecting them back on the reader as absurdities or truisms or whatever the writer wishes to convey. It is often only through the window of simplicity that we can she the world for what it really is and this particular literary convention is one of the great gifts that novels give humanity.

Conversely, J.M. Coetzee has made a career of reflecting on larger social issues, chewing the fat under the guise of simple characters on flat, 2-dimentional settings. In Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee paints a bleak, featureless, Cormac McCarthy-esque landscape in which to wax intellectual on the subject of imperialism. Coetzee thrives in stripped down settings and simple characters. It's no wonder that he is the first person to win the Man Booker Prize twice. Literary critics seems to love simple narratives that involve simple characters. I'm not here to argue with the critics. It's a solid literary device. See Dent, Arthur.

In J.M. Coetzee's Nobel Prize (and Booker Prize) winning novel Life & Times of Michael K, the reader is presented with just such a character. In Michael K, Coetzee has created a character designed exclusively to suffer for the greater good of his reader. Set in apartheid era South Africa, Michael K is a simple man born with a cleft lip who simply wants to help his mother return to her childhood home in Prince Albert in the country before she dies. Unfortunately he attempts this journey in the midst of a war and the trip is rife with dangers. When his mother dies mid-voyage, Michael oscillates between living a life of absolute freedom on the veldt and confined to labor camps as well as living in a state that can neither be called living nor dead. In both circumstances Michael suffers immensely, but only in absolute freedom is truly happy and bears his suffering willingly.

To read the rest of this review visit my blog: http://taiwaneastcoaster.blogspot.tw/2013/06/life-times-of-michael-k.html
  TaiwanRyan | Jun 22, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 41 (next | show all)
And so J.M. Coetzee has written a marvelous work that leaves nothing unsaid—and could not be better said—about what human beings do to fellow human beings in South Africa; but he does not recognize what the victims, seeing themselves as victims no longer, have done, are doing, and believe they must do for themselves. Does this prevent his from being a great novel? My instinct is to say a vehement "No." But the organicism that George Lukács defines as the integral relation between private and social destiny is distorted here more than is allowed for by the subjectivity that is in every writer. The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work's unity of art and life.
added by jburlinson | editNew York Review of Books, Nadine Gordimer (pay site) (Feb 2, 1984)
 

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
J.M. Coetzeeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Aguiar, João Baptista da CostaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Baiocchi, MariaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bergsma, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Brunse, NielsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dominik, PavelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fernandes, RicardoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Forsberg, PiaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Giachino, EnzoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Greiff, AudTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Konikowska, MagdalenaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Loponen, SeppoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Manella, ConchaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mayoux, SophieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Preis, ThomasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ross, KárolyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Siqueira, José RubensTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stoepman gvn, FritsCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Teichmann, WulfÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Udina, DolorsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Бужаровска… РуменаTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
War is the father of all and king of all.
Some he shows as gods, others as men.
Some he makes slaves, and others free.
Dedication
First words
The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K when she helped him out of his mother into the world was that he had a hare lip.
Quotations
He fetched the box of ashes from the house, set it in the middle of the rectangle, and say down to wait. He did not know what he expected; whatever it was, it did not happen. A beetle scurried across the ground. The wind blew. There was a cardboard box standing in the sunlight on a patch of baked mud, nothing more. There was another step, apparently, that he had to take but could not yet imagine.
Twelve men eat six bags of potatoes. Each bag holds six kilograms of potatoes. What is the quotient. He saw himself write down 12, he saw himself write down 6. He did not know what to do with the numbers. He crossed both out. He stared at the word quotient. It did not change, it did not dissolve, it did not yield its mystery. I will die, he thought, still not knowing what the quotient is.
He is like a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is now suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand. He passes through these institutions and camps and hospitals and God knows what else like a stone. Through the intestines of the war. An unbearing, unborn creature. I cannot really think of him as a man…
[Your stay in the camp] was an allegory – speaking at the highest level – of how scandalously, how outrageously a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140074481, Paperback)

In a South Africa turned by war, Michael K. sets out to take his ailing mother back to her rural home. On the way there she dies, leaving him alone in an anarchic world of brutal roving armies. Imprisoned, Michael is unable to bear confinement and escapes, determined to live with dignity. This life affirming novel goes to the center of human experience—the need for an interior, spiritual life; for some connections to the world in which we live; and for purity of vision.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:46:00 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

In South Africa, whose civil administration is collapsing under the pressure of years of civil strife, an obscure young gardener named Michael K decides to take his mother on a long march away from the guns towards a new life in the abandoned countryside. Everywhere he goes however, the war follows him. Tracked down and locked up as a collaborator with the rural guerrillas, he embarks on a fast that angers, baffles, and finally awes his captors. The story of Michael K is the story of a man caught up in a war beyond his understanding, but determined to live his life, however minimally, on his own terms.… (more)

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