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Life & Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee

Life & Times of Michael K (1983)

by J. M. Coetzee

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,296554,245 (3.79)205
From author of Waiting for the Barbarians and Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee.  J.M. Coetzee's latest novel, The Schooldays of Jesus, is now available from Viking. Late Essays: 2006-2016 will be available January 2018.  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.… (more)

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» See also 205 mentions

English (51)  Dutch (2)  Danish (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (55)
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
Michael K was a crushing exploration of humanity, bedraggled with misfortune and fear, yet transcendent. This was a meditation on silences. there is a measure of hiding and deception, but the novels' thrust remains fixed on a tacit approach. The universality of the novel removes it from any domestic baggage. I found myself yearning and aching, perhaps inwardly applauding Michael for his obstinacy and initiative. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
A difficult book to read and review. K's story is heartbreaking and miserable, and I found myself both feeling sorry for him and being repulsed by him. The book was unsettling in that it made me think on just how lonely and insignificant this business of being a human can be. The writing is excellent and the story is engaging, but reading the book made me feel profoundly alone and sad. ( )
  sprainedbrain | Dec 1, 2018 |
Michael K is searching for peace and freedom in a world filled with violence and oppression. Set in apartheid South Africa at a time of civil war, Life & Times of Michael K tells a powerful tale of one man’s unrelenting passive resistance to the tyranny, poverty, and strife he finds all around him. Described as a simple-minded man with a birth defect that no one has cared enough to correct, Michael K leaves his job as a gardener in Cape Town to help his aging mother return to her country home to live out her last days. When his mother dies during the journey, K is left to fend for himself in a society that he does not really understand. This begins a downward spiral of isolation and starvation that finds him wandering the veld, confined in work or prison camps, and living by himself on an abandoned farm in the mountains.

The story is told in three parts from two different perspectives. In the first, which is the lengthiest section of an otherwise slim book, we learn through second-hand narration of Michael K’s sad upbringing, including the time he spent in a cruel boarding school as a boy. The essence of the tale then picks up with K in his early thirties leaving the coast with his mother and ends with him being arrested as a rebel collaborator while hiding in the cave he has made his home for a year. The second part of the book shifts to the perspective of a prison doctor where the man he knows only as “Michaels” is slowly starving himself to death. It is the doctor’s quest to understand K’s story and save his life in spite of himself that provides much of the novel’s moral direction. The brief final part returns to a second-hand description of K’s life back in Cape Town after escaping from incarceration.

J. M. Coetzee has been rightly feted over the years for his prose, with honors that include multiple Man Booker awards and the Nobel Prize in Literature. His writing here is spare and compelling, but it is also lacking in the sort of warmth that might resonate with the reader. Life & Times of Michael K is really more about the author’s sometime heavy-handed “individual versus the state” message than it is about developing a compassionate or relatable character. In fact, the author never really allows us to get inside of K and understand why he feels or thinks the way he does. Instead, we are frequently told how “simple” he is even though there is plenty of evidence in the story to the contrary (e.g., his ability to repeatedly escape captivity and live by his own wits). So, while I think that this is almost certainly an important book for the message it strives to convey, it is one that I am not sure I fully enjoyed reading. ( )
  browner56 | Apr 10, 2018 |
This was my first Coetzee, I remember it being a short book but difficult to read. It was very bleak. Michael was not a character one engaged with.

The story is set in Apartheid south Africa. Michael K is searching for a place for himself. He leaves his job to help his mother return to her home in her last days. The story has themes of isolation.

"... and her own mother, in a secret life we do not see, was a child too. I came from a line of children without end."

"Suicide...is an act not of the body against itself but of the will against the body".

an allegory - how scandously, how outrageosly a meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it.

"It is different to be kind to a person who wants nothing." ( )
  Kristelh | Jan 31, 2018 |
As much as I loved Disgrace, Coetzee impressed me more with this novel. Michael K was born with a hare lip and a simple mind, and so spent much of his life as an outcast. While South Africa is struggling through a civil war, Michael K sets out to take his dying mother back to her childhood home. Along the way his mother dies, leaving him alone. He eventually makes his way to an abandoned farm in the countryside, and there proceeds to enjoy the simple process of planting and harvesting food. Despite this, he nearly starves and ends up in a work camp. Here is where the narrative shifts from Michael to the doctor treating him for malnutrition, and we see the doctor’s concern and fascination with Michael and his desire to be free to live as he wants. This book astonished me with its examination of the human spirit and simple human dignity. This is one of my favorite books of all time. ( )
  dorie.craig | Jun 22, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 51 (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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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.
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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.
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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