Life and Times of Michael K, Paperback Book

Life and Times of Michael K Paperback

4 out of 5 (5 ratings)


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.




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Review by

The Life & Times of Michael K won the Booker Prize in 1983. Written by Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee, it is set in South Africa during a civil war. Michael is a gardener in his earlier thirties who has a harelip. He was institutionalized by his mother when he was a child, but at the beginning of the book when she is old and very ill, she calls for him. She would like him to take her to the village where she grew up. Getting the proper paperwork for the train is practically impossible because of the war, so finally they give up on it and try to go there on their own.Many things happen to Michael on the trip. He is captured and made to work for awhile, and then released. He finds what he thinks is the farm where his mother was raised and makes himself a home (if you can call it that) there. Struggling to survive and evade the government, in the midst of it all he still wants to be a gardener and plants a small pumpkin patch, which he guards and tends with fervor.The book is told in three parts. Parts I and III describe the storyline from Michael’s perspective. Part II is told in first person by a doctor who tries to understand Michael when he is brought under his care. This was a thought-provoking book and I enjoyed it, though I could have done without some scenes at the end. I’ll definitely read more by Coetzee.

Review by

A compelling yet very disturbing read. Even though I finished it awhile ago, I still feel unsettled by it. It's a story of Michael K,an inarticulate man with a harelip, `not entirely there' yet wepresume of normal intelligence and completely harmless, who isperpetually not understood or misunderstood by everybody. After thegovernment permit proved impossible to get, he is illegally on his wayto take his mother, and after she dies her ashes, to the place in thecountry where she was born.The place is South Africa and the time is not defined but dangerousdue to the violent social disturbances. Everybody is under suspicion.It's dangerous not to be able to explain oneself fully, and soMichael K is perpetually mistrusted and handled "like a stone, apebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business sincethe dawn of time, is now suddenly picked up and tossed randomly fromhand to hand." He ends up in a strange train turned labour camp, thenshut up in another, and finally on the brink of death from starvationin a hospital, but runs away from all of them. He can't bear to beshut up and manages to escape from any enclosure, and as long as he isfree, he can sustain himself on practically nothing, living off whatthe land can offer him. He is not fond of killing animals; he'd muchrather live on grubs and wild plants and when he can, and plants hehas planted and grown himself. He is a gardener and this is whatgives him happiness in life.Despite all his disadvantages, he is unbelievably resilient, stubbornand self-sufficient. In this respect, it's striking how much heresembles Lucy from Disgrace, also a gardener, and who also shows allthose qualities under very difficult circumstances. If we assume thatLucy is a symbol for the solution for SA, then Michel K is one too- hehas no race, does not have clever solutions, hates war, but isenamoured with the land and loves freedom above everything else. Nomatter how damaged he is, he always manages to rebound, so there is hope.

Review by

An interesting read. I wondered if Coetzee was writing about himself, not literally but figuratively. So I read a bit on the background of this book afterwards and found that this work might be related to/inspired by Kafka. Though I haven't read Kafka, particularly The Metamorphosis, I was somehow reminded of it when I read passages where Michael K reflects on how his wild living is no different from that of a worm, or a spider or any other insects that he comes into close contact with. They are also, to K himself, gardeners, as he comments at the very end of the book, which was K's job at the beginning of the story.This is the fourth book by Coetzee that I finished, and while his writing seems to be, quite pronouncedly, lamentations of his life and his association with his homeland, this one is a bit heavy compared to his later work. Although Coetzee's brilliant writing style is already very evident in this earlier book of his.Many good lines I read throughout, but my favourite is probably "... if there is one thing I discovered out in the country, it was that there is time enough for everything." (183) The final paragraph, too long to quote, is amazing as well. It puts a smile to my face.

Review by

Michael is poor and born with a harelip. There's no father and his mother puts him in an orphanage, possibly because he's a bit slow. The book isn't narrated by him but much of it is seen from his point of view. He's inexperienced and unworldly but I'm not entirely sure he's unintelligent. The action takes during the civil war in South Africa when Michael K is an adult working as a gardener in a public park. His mother, who's been a maid for a rich family, is existing in a single room; she's clearly too ill to work. There is no politics in this book and the "real" world exists for the reader in the nebulous cloud it seems to be for Michael K. In fact the book reminds me a bit of Cormac McCarthy's The Road with the character moving though a nightmare environment which bears some resemblance (but not much) to the real world. This is not a world of ashes, but Michael knows only what touches him directly and has no clue what the war is about, what side he is on or even what his place in the world should be. He tries to follow the rules in a chaotic environment. His mother wants to return to the country village where she grew up and he fashions a crude cart to attach to his bicycle and pull her. Their journey is made horrid by the weather and by the people they meet along the way—soldiers, others escaping the city, some preying on the travelers. The mother dies in a hospital on the way, is cremated and the ashes given to Michael. With his mother's death, Michael loses his last touch with the world around him and becomes so isolated that he digs a hole in the ground to live in while cultivating pumpkins on an abandoned farm that may or may not be the one where his mother grew up. He has visions of his mother in flames and eventually remembers her death as "They burned her up". He's found in his hole by the authorities and assumed to be a supporter of the rebels who refuses to talk when actually he has no clue what his interrogators are talking about. He is shunted to a hospital where a medical officer tries and fails to "save" him. He escapes initially by refusing to talk and then, cleverly, manages to walk out.One cannot help but think there's a way in which Michael K is "saner" and "brighter" than those around him who engage, one way or another, in a destructive and inhumane war. The reader to some extent shares the frustration of the medical officer who tries to "save" Michael. But save him from what and to what?

Review by

A novel in parts. The first being a comically miserable little tale of a Kafka character in Sud-Afrika, the second of a doctor's philosophical investigations of this man, and the third being some hippy-dippy nonsense.<br/><br/>

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