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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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2,554624,485 (3.8)223
In a South Africa torn by civil war, Michael K sets out to take his 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. Life and Times of Michael K goes to the centre 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. 'This is a truly astonishing novel... I finished Life & Times of Michael K in a state of elation, for all the misery and suffering it contains. I cannot recommend it highly enough' Evening Standard… (more)
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» See also 223 mentions

English (58)  Dutch (2)  Danish (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (62)
Showing 1-5 of 58 (next | show all)
What an agile author, able to describe pretty mundane things so that I was turning pages to get to the next scene. ( )
  ebethe | Jun 15, 2021 |
Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee (1983) is an oddly moving little book about an oddly moving little man. Michael K is an unlikely protagonist. The book begins with his mother’s revulsion at the cleft lip he is born with. Michael spends his school years in an institution, visited by his mother, then becomes a gardener. He cares for his sickly mother until the growing social unrest in their city of Cape Town, South Africa, threatens to take away both their jobs. After a riot in their neighborhood, she persuades him to take her to the countryside where she grew up, but she dies before they arrive.

At this point, Michael is cut loose. The first two-thirds of the book is the oddly clinical chronicling of his long and lonely path. He is picked up as a vagrant and spends time in a camp where he is told he is not a prisoner, but that he will be shot if he tries to leave. He eventually finds the farm where he thinks his mother lived, and secretly plants a pumpkin patch, living like an animal in a burrow, before he is picked up and sent back to camp. Michael wonders why he must do as he is told, but never seems to get emotional. He simply leaves when he can.

Part two starts out clinically as well, as it is told from the point of view of a medic in Michael’s last camp. However, this man becomes moved by Michael’s case, almost in awe of the quiet man’s unreachability, and dreams of following him back to the country when Michael escapes yet again. He even starts addressing his musings directly to Michael:

You have never asked for anything, yet you have become an albatross around my neck. Your bony arms are knotted behind my head, I walk bowed under the weight of you.

I take this to mean that the white colonists have created a huge burden for themselves by taking away the natives’ freedom; each man comes to represent his race. However, one of the remarkable things about Michael K is that Coetzee never once describes a person as black, white, or colored. I can only assume that Michael is black or colored, and that the medic is white. Finally, the very brief part three finds Michael back in Cape Town, and willing to tell his story to other people surviving by their wits, away from the camps.

I am reminded of several other works: first, the South African setting reminds me of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, also about race, and farming. Michael’s last initial, K, as well as the thoughtless bureaucracy that labels this harmless gardener as an arsonist and guerilla, makes me think of Kafka’s The Trial. Finally, the life-or-death bleakness of Michael’s travels through a war-torn landscape reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Like The Road, this novel is moving without being sentimental. I look forward to reading Nobel prizewinner Coetzee’s next Booker winner, Disgrace (1999).
( )
  stephkaye | Dec 14, 2020 |
The story began as a dramatic dystopian tale of danger and desperation but transitioned into a nightmarish tale of imprisonment and lassitude. A bleak, depressing story of Michael’s fight for freedom and identity. ( )
  Misprint | Aug 31, 2020 |
Absolutely superb. A trial by life of an unsuspecting anti-hero who never belonged to this world, told through tales of internment and exile during the South African civil crisis. Smooth reading and truly touching. ( )
  ephemeral_future | Aug 20, 2020 |
From the first moment of life, Michael K was dealt a bad hand. Inflicted with a hare lip, his mother kept him from other children so she could avoid hearing their whispers and mockery. Because it was believed he was mentally deficient, he was enrolled in a state school where he was taught the basics as well as a trade.
Through to his 31st year he seemed content living with his sickly mother and working as a gardener. His mother's illness and South Africa's civil war disrupts his solitary life which through trials and tribulations begins to take on new meaning for him. The journey he must take changes him physically, mentally and spiritually. The journey the reader succumbs to is somewhat similar. Coetzee's writing style is simple yet powerful and one can not help but be moved by Michael's circumstances. Highly recommend. ( )
  Carmenere | Dec 29, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 58 (next | show all)
But in spite of such pleasures, I have serious doubts. My main concern is Michael K himself. He's more of a plot device than a real man, and we are constantly reminded how simple Michael is, and how little he understands .
added by Nickelini | editThe Guardian, Sam Jordison (Jun 16, 2009)
 
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 editionscalculated
Aguiar, João Baptista da CostaCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Baiocchi, MariaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
BascoveCover artistsecondary 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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Information from the Spanish Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
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Wikipedia in English (1)

In a South Africa torn by civil war, Michael K sets out to take his 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. Life and Times of Michael K goes to the centre 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. 'This is a truly astonishing novel... I finished Life & Times of Michael K in a state of elation, for all the misery and suffering it contains. I cannot recommend it highly enough' Evening Standard

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