Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 12, 2020

Life and Times of Michael K By J.M. Coetzee, winner of the Booker Prize in 1983

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

Life and Times of Michael K By J.M. Coetzee, won the Booker Prize in 1983.

August 28th, 2002

Such a melancholy, haunting book! It won the Booker in 1983, and no wonder – its a spare, precise prose is perfect for the pared-down life of its central character, Michael K.

He’s a misfit; near mute from a disfiguring cleft palate, and intellectually disabled. He’s taken from his mother and put into a ‘home’ where he is barbarously ill-treated. In adulthood he lives a simple life as a gardener, but all that changes when his ailing mother asks to be taken to her old hometown, Prince Alfred in the Cape. He makes a simple barrow and sets off, unable to acquire the requisite permit because of bureaucratic delay, but his mother dies en route. (This need to have a permit, BTW, is what identifies him as non-White, for Whites in the apartheid era could travel wherever they liked within South Africa without permits.)

The K, I think, is an allusion to Kafka, for like K in The Trial, Michael K is an innocent abroad in an insane world, where he is falsely accused of ‘crimes’ that are illegal only in the obscene regime of South Africa under apartheid. Determined to travel on so that he can spread his mother’s ashes, Michael then loses what little he has, but takes up residence in an abandoned farmhouse and begins to grow pumpkins and melons. When the owner’s son returns (AWOL from the undefined war, which identifies him as White since all Whites had to undergo national service) Michael has to move on again, and takes shelter in a cave. There, half-starved, he is arrested by the security forces who interpret his inarticulate manner as cover for helping the rebels.

So he’s interned, and the novel reaches a crescendo when Michael’s refusal to eat is interpreted as a political protest. He’s too inadequate and inarticulate to even think it for himself, but the medical officer takes over the narration and fills us in on Michael’s subconscious desire to be free of camps and controls and restrictions.

K escapes, and returns to Cape Town. He is taken up by a bizarre group of homeless pimps and prostitutes but they too try to steal from him. The novel closes with Michael living on teaspoons of water and fantasising about a return to the farm.

I think that what Coetzee is saying is that there is no place for people like Michael K anywhere in a society that has no compassion, but that K is able to retain his dignity by controlling the one thing he can – his body. He is anorexic, past curing, but he is indomitable.

This novel was written at a time when both Reagan and Thatcher were defying UN condemnation of the apartheid regime and Thatcher had declared the ANC a terrorist organisation. I think the melancholy tone of Life and Times of Michael K reflects the hopelessness of those who were working for the abolition of apartheid in that period.

I finished reading and journalled this book on 28.8.2002.

 


Responses

  1. Thank you for reminding me of this grim and powerful novel. (1983 seems to be a long time ago. )

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    • Indeed it does. The apartheid regime seems like a bizarre nightmare from which the world has woken.

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  2. Such a sad, sad tale. Powerful message though.

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    • It’s like Cry the Beloved Country, it breaks your heart to read it.

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  3. The K is for Karamazov and the tale mirrors the Dostoevsky tale in many ways but some in my reading group didn’t quite get that part. I love this book – one of the highlights of my year (whenever it was).

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    • I didn’t get that either!

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      • Well that’s because it’s the wrong book and although I did read The Life and Tims of Michael K, my head did a little twist between reading the title and making an assumption, conflating the in with The Brothers K and then not reading your thoughts! Big Big Boo Boo!

        Now I’ve read your review I must say it was a good book – not Coetzee’s best imo and apparently not as memorable as The Brothers K. Thank you for the review and please forgive.

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        • LOL Becky I am glad to have your comments any time and I am quite sure that between us we can find some correspondences between Dostoyevsky and Coetzee!!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Can I bear to read it? I think I must.

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    • I hope you do, I’d love to know what you think of it.

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      • I’ve reserved it at the library ūüėä

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  5. I think this sounds too bleak for me in these times – covid19, Beirut – I’m afraid I am looking for something more escapist these days! Perhaps when times improve…

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    • Yes, I can understand that. It’s a bleak book at the best of times. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to have seen no hope of improvement.

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  6. One of the sections of the book that stays in my memory is of Michael pushing his mother in the wheelbarrow to try and fulfill her wish to return to the farm. The ending frustrated me, though. The tone felt odd somehow …

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    • We can just imagine Coetzee, probably sunk in despair himself, trying to create an ending for this book…it’s like the one I’m reading at the moment, The Fire Starters, and I’ve got to the stage where I am wondering how it will all end and can’t imagine my way out of my desire for a ‘happy ending’ and my recognition that such a thing just isn’t possible.

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      • So many books have disappointing endings. I don’t mean that I want them to have “happy outcomes” but more that they just fall flat, as if the author just ran out of steam

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        • In this case, maybe he was deliberately conveying the way the struggle to end apartheid was running out of steam. Such a dreadful, dreadful time. At least with Trump we know that there can only ever be two terms…

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