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4.2 out of 5 stars
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4.2 out of 5 stars
Life and Times of Michael K
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on 12 December 2000
Michael K left me feeling on the one hand empty inside as though something had left me during the reading and on the other, elated. Wiser. On the surface it's a story of struggle but as you turn each page it slowly dawns that this struggle will never end. It's relentless. The forces against Michael K, a gardner, are too great and too many. In the end he takes his own route through an extrordianry maze of difficulties the best way he knows how until he is left at the end with everything intact, as though he never made the first step of this journey. We are left wondering, who is Michael K? We never discover what Michael K has to say or how he really feels, we must accept that we only know him by the hardships he encounters. The Life and Times of Michael K tells us more about ourselves than it does the characters in the book and this is the real essence of Coetzee's writing. Michael K will stay with me forever, a ghostly book that still haunts the mind.
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on 22 July 2017
Superb, harsh, cruel and still so moving. No other Author has managed to deep down into the human soul and provide such a narrative for survival and bitterness.
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on 11 December 2004
This novel begins in a rather humdrum manner of everyday life in hardship. The hardship increases with the complexity of life, and it is the developing confusion of choices and the emerging landscape of morality that intensifies the hardship as much as the harsh physical and political environments.
The hardship can seem oppressive to the reader, particularly if you expect some of the more rounded colourings of Alan Paton or Doris Lessing's African works, but perseverance is more than worthwhile. The book can be divided into two main sections, each viewing the world from a distinct perspective: one black, one white. Neither is at ease, nor optimistic, yet, despite the air of oppressive hardship and misery, the ending is something quite unexpected, refreshing, and enlivening. It is too simple to refer to it as optimism or hope, simply a reversion to a simple universal truth.
This novel is both a classic of South Africa, and a classic novel of universal appeal. Despite its slimness it is one of the most moving works I have ever read, and perhaps particularly rare for being able to deal with the subject of a black man in apartheid South Africa without ever being a manifesto or sermon. It is simply a eulogy of humanity.
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on 30 May 2000
It has been a while that I have read anything as brave, honest and utterly compelling. Coetzee's insight into the struggle of life is quite humbling. Here the character wishes nothing more in life than to exist as a simple man living from the fruits of his labour. To enjoy life immersed in a simplicity which you or I can only read about. Through man's ignorance he is never granted this liberty.
I would recommend it a thousand times over - an unforgettable masterpiece for those who understand personal struggle. As I read the final words I dived straight back to the beginning.
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on 21 April 2012
Based against the backdrop of the final days of apartheid in South Africa and martial law, this is the story of Michael K. We are told of Michael K's facial deformity, his difficult childhood left by his mother in an institution, his work as a gardener, and his subsequent care for his mother when she becomes ill. Faced with the loss of work and home, Michael takes his mother on a journey back to her childhood home. A journey his mother doesn't complete and which leads Michael into the bleakest of existences as he seeks isolation and freedom whilst the outside world seeks to restrain and define him.

The merciless deprivation and perennial hunger are relentless. In some ways Michael K epitomises the Janis Joplin quote `freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose'. Michael's refusal to be bound by others is inspirational and frustrating in equal measure. The characterisation almost gives him a religious overtone in the simplicity and innocence of his desires. However, it is also possible to see Michael as a metaphor for the decay of South Africa, as it rots from within so Michael slowly starves. To stretch the metaphor to the limit his persistence in wishing to plant and nurture pumpkin seeds suggests the latent potential for growth and renewal.

This is an extraordinary book. The multi-layered themes, the astonishing sense of bleakness created by the sparse and simple narrative, and the enigmatic character of Michael K, make this a superb work, well worthy of the accolades it has received.
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on 3 January 2008
In a society in which a whole group of its citizens is accorded no value, what happens when one of them values himself even less? The answer: he becomes like a double negative; and double negatives become positives. 'The obscurist of the obscure,' as Coetzee puts it,'so obscure as to be a prodigy.'

Coetzee writes with an economy and simple elegance which can be misleading. His prose can seem so plain there is a danger one thinks the story is plain too. In fact he draws with the economy of line of a great artist - and through it, like great artists, he achieves great beauty.

Michael K is a man for whom no one has ever much cared, and who consequently cares nothing for himself. He stumbles through civil war torn South Africa and is kicked about like a stone; not a rough, awkward protesting stone, but like a smooth stone, 'like 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.' And is indestructible.

This is a short book that should be read at a run, not picked up and put down. The narrative may seem meandering. Those who encounter K are so perplexed by him they barely bother with him; and he is never bothered by them. The stone is merely kicked about. The point, for some time, seems obscure.

But then the stone that is K lands in the possession of someone different: of someone good. And now, for the first time, K becomes a disturbance; he creates anxiety, he upsets the status quo. And the moral of the tale reveals itself: sometimes, amidst the banality of institutionalised evil, it requires the extraordinary to make good people see the truth - even if, in this case, what is extraordinary is K's extreme ordinariness.

It is a poignant, painful and powerful book, that could only have been attempted - let alone delivered successfully - by a writer of authority, clarity and total control. But then those are the characteristics of J M Coetzee. He has given us a story about something vital out of the life of a man who is nothing.
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on 31 December 2009
`Life and Times of Michael K' is Coetzee vintage. One of the few books marking the milestones in the author's career... and I am not talking in terms of awards.

The protagonist Michael is a simpleton to the point of being mentally challenged, having been institutionalized in childhood. The apartheid war is going on all around him, but his is a life completely calm, until his mother falls ill. He then embarks on a journey to her birthplace. This becomes his quest, his purpose. On the way his mother dies but he continues the journey. At last he reaches the supposed birthplace of his mother and stays in the wilderness there, trying to live off the land. He is drawn into the war a few times but he refuses to participate in it and again and again returns to try living a simple life. At last he returns to the city, with the same sense of confusion and disorientation of war.

The protagonist Michael is a non-conformist, who is unwilling to join the war between the civilization and the barbarians, on either side.

Coetzee treats Michael K differently than his previous heroes. He is neither a brutalized caricature of a racist-colonialist like the hero of Dusklands, nor is he the romantic hero of `Waiting for the Barbarians' who, in a Quixotic act, turns against his own civilization, completely taking the side of the black Africans.

Coetzee is maturing in this novel. Unlike his unequivocal leftist sympathies of previous works, in this novel he just theoretically sympathizes with the barbarians. In practice he prefers living off the land, unconcerned with any side of war and favoring a Romantic return to the nature.

This is a disturbing novel. Ten pages into it and you feel dejected, confused and overcome by a sad lethargy.

In varying degrees, this is true of every work of Coetzee. Every page of his reflects the confusion arising from the African history. The delicate intellect of Coetzee looks with confusion at the innate violence of South Africa, the hopelessness of a nation made of irreconcilable halves and irresolvable issues, a nation clubbed together by historical accidents of its racist-colonialist past. The only emotions it can evoke are of horror, dismay fear and pity. But at the end every feeling mutates into a melancholic confusion. This is Coetzee's reaction to the African tragedy. And this is the hero's reaction too. Michael K is Coetzee, minus his intellect.

Michael also reflects the political orientation of Coetzee:

"Politically, the raznochinets can go either way. But during his student years he, this person, this subject, my subject, steers clear of the right. As a child in Worcester he has seen enough of the Afrikaner right, enough of its rant, to last him a lifetime. In fact, even before Worcester he has perhaps seen more of cruelty and violence than should have been allowed to a child. So as a student he moves on the fringes of the left without being part of the left. Sympathetic to the human concerns of the left, he is alienated, when the crunch comes, by its language - by all political language, in fact."[1]

Exactly! Skimming along the fringes of left but not completely owning it.

The novel asserts that a `simple' man like Michael does not take any side. The only wish he has is to live a `simple' life with Nature. But the reader suspects that the simplicity of Michael is not that simple at all. He muses whether it is an indifference forced upon a simple personality by a superior intellect, an intellect committed to a certain point of view, certain ideology.

A simple man would not have remained indifferent to such a human tragedy. He would have reacted with anger, pity, sorrow or dejection.

Such a vision as that of Michael can only be that of a white male of South Africa who is fiercely committed to the race, which is not his own and in consequence rejected by both of them. Only he can be so detached, so unable to take sides.

Any less delicate personality than Coetzee may have reacted otherwise. Such a literary genius as his deserved to be born in the pre-Victorian or Victorian England, patronized by the court or nobles. But unfortunately for him and fortunately for us he was born in a deeply disturbed time and a deeply disturbed place. All of his works stacked one upon other tell us this story, the story of a delicate literary genius trying to comprehend and prevent all the misery but at last unable to do so. The fact that Coetzee finally migrated to Australia shows that it came to a breaking point finally where he could no longer watch it.
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on 11 July 2007
I can't think of any other author who can write with the economy of Coetzee. With practically no imagery, he manages to convey a sense of emotion and place which is overwhelming. There's something alien about Michael K and the way he refuses all help and seems resigned to the collapse of his life. I think this book is a more subtle but much more powerful allegory of Africa than "Disgrace"
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 August 2012
'Life and Times of Michael K' was the first of Coetzee's two Booker-winning novels. Published in 1983, it is set in a temporally unspecific South Africa that is sliding into civil war. It follows the wanderings of the eponymous Michael, a poor and uneducated man with a harelip who works as a gardener in Cape Town. Michael attempts to accompany his sickening mother to her hazily-remembered birthplace in the country. Coetzee uses this ill-advised expedition to reflect on the human predicament of individuals who refuse to surrender to compulsion.

The novel's title immediately suggests Kafka, and there are also echoes of Beckett, but it has also been suggested that the book is a re-imagining of Kleist's 'Michael Kohlhaas'. It says a great deal that Coetzee's novel doesn't immediately founder under the weight of such comparisons. The book has been assimilated to the category of anti-apartheid protest novels, and of course it may be read as such; but it is in fact far more general and subtle in its examination of man's existential plight, his relationship to his fellow men and broader questions of freedom and dependence. In that sense, it is as resonant as any of the novels that have taken the Holocaust as emblematic of our contemporary condition.

I greatly enjoyed this book, which is in some ways a companion piece to its predecessor, 'Waiting For the Barbarians', a more abstract and literary treatment of similar themes also drawing on a predecessor text: in that case, Dino Buzzati's 'The Tartar Steppe'.

Coetzee is a major writer here. These were the books that established his reputation, and must have played a large part in his subsequent Nobel Prize award. Highly recommended to anybody interested in serious postwar fiction in English. For once, this a prize-winning book that earns its plaudits.
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on 1 January 2015
This is a relatively brief book, but has a magnitude of meaning far beyond its size. I began reading Life & Times of Michael K on New Year's Eve, and was finished before breakfast on New Year's Day. However, I'm pretty sure I will return to it again, and again.

Set in Apartheid era South Africa during a fictionalised civil war, Michael K is a gardener and an outsider in Cape Town. He tries to return his sick mother to her rural birthplace, but lacks the appropriate paperwork and permissions. He is robbed, arrested, placed in an internment camp for vagrants and suffers the injustices of a grossly unfair system. However, he also learns to survive on his own and discovers a form of true freedom that is beyond the understanding of others. The image that concludes the book is as fine an image of the true value and resilience of life as I have read in a long time. What could so easily have been a book about the futility of life, becomes a challenge and a source of hope.

I love the directness of Coetzee's writing. Nothing is wasted. He is a two-time winner of the Booker Prize, and I would argue that this is the better of his two prizewinners. I recently had the misfortune to read a Booker shortlisted novel which the publisher had described as '... a novel to be talked of in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, thought-provoking and life-changing.' That description would be much better suited to Life & Times of Michael K. Highly recommended.
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