on August 29, 1999
Michael K is by most people's reckoning a subnormally endowed specimen of a human being - physically and mentally handicapped, he appears to be no more than one of life's cruel failures. It is only his indomitable spirit and courage which has helped him endure constant hardship and ultimately transcend human suffering brought upon by South Africa's apartheid regime. At one level, the story seems to be about the victory of spiritual and morale courage over man's cruelty. Just as Michael's natural otherworldliness served as a protective cloak against life's slings and arrows, Coetzee seems to be telling us to take heart and emulate Michael - if such a sorry human specimen can prevail against all odds, so can we. At another level, the story seems to me to be about the independence or autonomy of the human spirit from the realities of social and political life. Through the eyes of soldiers and other conscious members of society, we see a crumbling social order and chaos everywhere. Everything touched by them is, as it were, defiled and rendered foul. Only in Michael's makebelieve world does he still find his private space and food still fit for human consumption. Coetzee's slim novel makes for compelling reading. His message is simple but powerful and uplifting.
Even without the K after the Michael, it would be difficult to read this book without thinking about Kafka. Michael K is a simple gardner from a class and a situation where to be simple is not to be protected, but to be unnecessary and even guilty. Guilty of what? Guilty of being expendable, of being bewildered, of being unable to cope or understand the different categories of change around him. Coetzee has created a character who has been judged and found wanting long before he understands that this is even a possibility.
What is interesting about Michael and what is also one of the organising aspects of the book is that Michael does not stay in passive opposition to his situation but gradually moves to a kind of active opposition-- at least as active as such a limited character with limited power is capable of carrying out. A lot of the criticism of this book talks about post-colonial literature and racial relations and all of those things are certainly backdrop to the story, but it is mostly about power imbalance and the effect of power imbalance on the people least equipped to do anything except express confusion. Michael K is a disenfranchised everyman, someone who is only as useful as society is kind.
This is only the second of two Coetzee books that I have read. I unintentionally picked the two books with which he won Booker prizes (this one and Disgrace). If this had been the first Coetzee that I picked up, as good as it is, it may well be that I would not have rushed to read another one. It is a relentlessly unhappy book, and its vision of freedom that Michael is able to achieve is not a glorious one. Michael apparently has only the freedom to be misunderstood and protected, misunderstood and persecuted, or alone and dead. As much as the world around him is creating Michael, it is hard to imagine a world in which he ever had the possibility of happiness. That kind of bleakness is hard to read and there is not even Beckett-style bitter humor to lighten the pages or encourage the reader. Disgrace was not exactly a happy book, but there was a complexity in it that I somehow miss in Life & Times.
It is not where I would start if I had not read any other Coetzee first, but it is difficult to argue with the brilliance of the writing (or the writer).
on January 9, 2003
Each sentence uttered by Michael K, the anti-hero of this book, is the voice of sanity, understanding, compassion and truth in a book full of voices of hate and confusion. Of course it's Michael K who is alledged to be the idiot, the simpleton. He's the only one who has chosen to listen to the voice inside each of us that says, "This is poison, avoid it, this is paradise, experience it now and stay here". I was reminded life isn't so very confusing when it's pared down to simplicity. I don't ever want to be the person with a weapon in my hand telling someone I'm just following orders or I'm just doing my job. Thank you, Mr. Coetzee for writing books for us to read.
on November 11, 2000
A bleak and forbidding tale about a physically disfigured man living in South Africa during a (fictional) civil war. Michael K is an outcast, yet there are some ways in which Coetzee portrays him as a Christ figure.The absence of a human father figure, the sketchy childhood prior to the events of the novel by which time he is 30, the period in the wilderness, his return signalling the drawing of (admittedly only one) disciple to him. Ultimately K is an outsider who wants to be left alone. However, society's paranoia makes it impossible for that to happen and he is condemned to live in circumstances that would kill anyone else. A sad and challenging book, worthy of the accolades accorded it.
on April 4, 2003
In a world flooded by turmoil and bereft of innocence, Michael K, simple, skeletal gardener and loyal son, stands alone. In the midst of war in South Africa, K withdraws himself from life, as we know it, and regresses, devolves, in order to survive his true bereavement; the loss of opportunity to tend the gardens of the city. This may appear callous at first, considering the event of his mother's death early in the story, and perhaps oversimplified, but K is `simple', after all.
The backdrop of war is a clever one. War relies heavily on definition, on who we are and which side we are on, with the hope of those in power that a conclusion to this issue will indicate what is to be `done' with us. It is an assumption the other characters in the story have, their seeming ability to define or classify K variously as homeless, as a walking representation of death, or as a saviour, that builds the concept of his character for the reader. He fits all, and simultaneously none, of these personas. K is resistant to any entirely accurate definition, as everyone in existence is, and it is refreshing, in a world so obsessed with naming and classifying, to be reminded of this.
There is a poignant contrast between K's worldview and his occupation. He is very much involved with the `smaller picture', primarily focussed on what he is able to do `right now', looking to his own immediate experiences as a guide. Even his name, `K', is a reduction to the barest of necessities. But gardening, for which he expresses his only great desire, is innately long-term, requiring the ability to predict and counter outcomes and problems, respectively. This polarity demonstrates, with precision, two spheres of human existence, the instinctual and the rational. Another contrast is expressed through K's desire to grow food, and his unconscionably skeletal frame. His physical form is the one area of K that is capable of reflecting the loss of 'self' he carries, while simultaneously seeking the sustenance that might see him endure long enough to find it.
Despite the evident references to an Apartheid South Africa, and indeed, this was the context for Coetzee while he wrote the 1983 Booker Prize winner, this transcendental story is truly about finding a sense of unity within ourselves. It is about the solidarity our humanity affords us, and the achingly unavoidable frailty so inadmissible by most, and yet welcomed by Michael K, often required to reach it.
on December 13, 2000
Michael K is a very thin, weak-looking man who is a gardner. As the book opens, he is trying to find a way to get his ill mother to Prince Albert where she was born. They make it halfway there when she unexpectedly passes away in a local hospital. Overwhelmed with grief and no longer in possession of any motivation whatsoever, K roams around aimlessly and becomes something of a homeless man. The story is a bit slow until he gets to Prince Albert. Here he begins a lifestyle of survival and escape, which he repeats numerous times throughout his life, and the reader begins to understand K more as a person. He is a man who is so thin he is often described as a skeleton. Even more importantly, he is mentally asleep. He does not desire human contact, food to eat, or work to occupy his body or mind. He is, strangely, not even interested in being nursed back to health at his lowest moment. "All these years, and still I carry the look of an orphan. Everywhere I go, there are people waiting to exercise their forms of charity on me" K says. And, unlike any other man, he resists this charity and escapes to his own company and the company of his gardens for "I am a gardener...I was mute and stupid in the beginning, I will be mute and stupid in the end. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being simple." Let the book speak for itself. It is a fascinating piece well worth anyone's time.
on June 26, 2000
A stunning novel but not for the faint of heart. Here are all the horrors of war, but presented on a microcosmic scale that doesn't allow the reader to substitute ultimately cold statistics (x million dead, for example) for the true havoc wreaked on an individual-by-individual basis. Statistics go down easier, and are easier to ignore; in contrast, the trajectory of the protagonist's life here is so heartbreaking as to be beyond sadness -- it changes the way you think about things. War is everywhere in this novel, yet nowhere; we encounter few soldiers and no battles, but the South Africa described here is ravaged seemingly beyond repair. It is nearly impossible to do justice to the merit and value of this book, and to Coetzee's razor-sharp focus; he says more in this short novel than lesser writers could with an ocean of words.
on January 31, 2010
Coetzee is one of my favorite authors. Admittedly, I still have a lot more to read. I have read Disgrace, Boyhood, Youth, Summertime and Waiting For The Barbarians.
I have enjoyed his work so much ,especially Disgrace and Summertime, that I almost feel like a traitor in not caring for Michael K. Nonetheless, that is the truth.
Thus far, I enjoy Coetzee more when his stories are more reality based and subtle. I find both Waiting For The Barbarians and Michael K to be too direct in their presentation of their underlying themes. Both Michael K and the Judge in Waiting for the Barbarians are tools to demonstrate the underlying themes of war, conflict and human freedom. I admire the sentiment but I think Coetzee's later work is more mature and developed.
Coetzee is an outstanding talent and not caring for The Life and Times of Michael K will in no way deter me from reading a lot more. I think I also hold this to a higher standard because of my expectations.
With all that said, there are great scenes in this book and it is very well constructed. I just can't quite recommend it.
on September 5, 1996
I really enjoyed this slim volume of survival on the
edges on a surreal post-civil war RSA. Michael K.'s
attempts to escape the brutality & degradation he
sees around him lead to an exploration of what we really
require to survive. Coetzee's commentary on a continually
intrusive civilization applies not only to the RSA in his
not-so-distant future (the book was written while apartheid
was still very much in force)but to all environments in
which society interferes with a personal and private attempt
to live independently. Buy, borrow, or steal this book.
Literary historians credit much of Ireland's rich literary tradition to its often tragic history. No surprise then that the nation of South Africa, likewise so rich in grief that it might as well diamonds, has produced so many extraordinary writers, two of whom, Coetzee included, who can boast a Nobel Prize. Which brings us to one of his many fine novels, the Life and Times of Michael K.
Telling the tale of a black man caught in the twisted and violent web of Apartheid might appear at first an obvious tale, but then again, so might the story of a child who turned to crime in London in the 19th century or one of a boy and his friend journeying down the Mississippi. It is in this vein which one must see The Life and Times of Michael K, one which captures a place and an age. Other reviewers have focused on the tale of the central character, Michael K, so I would instead look at another aspect of the novel. Despite writing about a place and a story where race surrounds every character and facet like smog, Coetzee never once tells us anyone's race. At first I found this strange, discerning it in its broad aspects but finding the absence the stated fact more than a little strange. It was then that a south African friend explained to me that while I could tell only the characters' races in the broadest sense, she could tell it easily, immediately, and down to which subgroup each belonged. Indeed, like an Englishman knowing the class of a countrymen by their accent, she knew this based on job, dress, and dialogue.
This then is to me part of the genius of Coetzee's novel, giving his reader a story that is at once subsumed by race and yet never mentioning it. True, as some complain, Michael K does not grow to a character larger than life, becoming some hero; no he is a simple man, living to the best of his common ability in a world where evil is so common that it deserves no mention.
I would be remiss not to mention Coetzee's gift for prose, his ability to distill a scene or a feeling down to a few words, like grain alcohol. Many Americans remain unfortunately ignorant of this writer and his country's other extraordinary authors, like Freed and Gordimer. This is a tragedy, which I urge every reader to correct.