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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Life & Times of Michael K


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To purchase Life & Times of Michael K

Title: Life & Times of Michael K
Author: J.M.Coetzee
Genre: Novel
Written: 1983
Length: 184 pages
Availability: Life & Times of Michael K - US
Life & Times of Michael K - UK
Life & Times of Michael K - Canada
Life & Times of Michael K - India
Michael K, sa vie, son temps - France
Leben und Zeit des Michael K. - Deutschland
La vita e il tempo di Michael K. - Italia
Vida y época de Michael K - España

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Our Assessment:

B : solid and affecting, but simplistic and limited

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 12/12/1983 Bruce Allen
Commonweal . 13/7/1984 Alberto Manguel
The Economist . 12/11/1983 .
Encounter . 1/1984 James Lasdun
The New Republic . 19/12/1983 Dorothy Wickenden
New Statesman . 30/9/1983 Harriet Gilbert
The NY Rev. of Books . 2/2/1984 Nadine Gordimer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 11/12/1983 Cynthia Ozick
Newsweek . 2/1/1984 Peter Prescott
Time . 2/1/1984 Patricia Blake
TLS . 30/9/1983 D.J.Enright
World Lit. Today . Summer/1984 Herny Kratz

  From the Reviews:
  • "If Life & Times of Michael K has a flaw, it is in the last-minute imposition of an interior choral interpretation. In the final quarter we are removed, temporarily, from the plain seeing of Michael K to the self-indulgent diary of the prison doctor who struggles with the entanglements of an increasingly abusive regime. But the doctor's commentary is superfluous; he thickens the clear tongue of the novel by naming its "message" and thumping out ironies." - Cynthia Ozick, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Life & Times of Michael K is set in a dystopian South Africa of around the 1970s in which there is a civil war going on. The setting matters some, but what might be thought to be the obvious -- issues of race, especially -- aren't at the forefront. Life & Times of Michael K is the story of the title character, and he's not much a part of society (not that there's all that much society to be part of).
       Michael K has a hare lip which, though it could be easily medically corrected, never is. He's also a bit slow in the head and was institutionalised as a child. As a doctor who later treats him explains:

He is a simpleton, and not even an interesting simpleton. He is a poor helpless soul who has been permitted to wander out on the battlefield, if I may use that word, the battlefield of life, when he should have ben shut away in an institution with high walls, stuffing cushions or watering the flower beds
       It's always a challenge using an innocent as a central character. If it is a child, then generally guilt (or death) must eventually attach; a simpleton, however, remains simple -- remains in a state of purity, innocence, and grace. There's obvious appeal to that, and yet it's also terribly limiting.
       Michael K is thirty-one when the story begins. His mother, Anna, who works as a domestic servant is ill, and things are looking bleak in the coastal city where Michael also lives, so she persuades him to take her back to the town where she was born. The state of affairs necessitates travelling permits and the like, but eventually Michael just packs his mother in a homemade cart and rolls her off to the country. She dies along the way, but eventually Michael makes it there on his own.
       Michael lives on the land, communing with nature (and barely scraping by), and also lands in the labour/internment camps that have sprung up all over the nation. He fares best (except in terms of getting enough to eat) when left alone -- and that's all he wants to do: be left alone.
       The book is told in three parts. The first (two-thirds of the book's length) covers most of his adventures, until he's scooped up again by the army and suspected of helping the collaborators. The second part is narrated by a doctor at one of the camps he is sent to. Grossly malnourished, Michael is kept under medical supervision (and promptly returned to it after he is briefly released into the general population), and the doctor, intrigued by him, writes about him. Michael eventually escapes from the camp, and in the last section returns to the city he started out in.
       It is a story of survival and isolation, the individual struggling against a society gone awry -- and struggling to survive in nature. There is only a vague, ominous sense of how bad things really are in the greater society, as when the doctor speaks with a camp-administrator (regarding their apparently relatively lenient treatment of the camp-inmates):
     'But we are soft,' I suggest.
     'Perhaps we are soft,' he replies. 'Perhaps we are even scheming a bit, at the back of our minds. Perhaps we think that if one day they come and put everyone on trial, someone will step forward and say, "Let those two off, they were soft." Who knows ?'
       Michael K, the primitive innocent, is generally treated fairly decently and softly. Someone suggests to him:
     'You're a baby,' said Robert. 'You've been asleep all your life. It's time to wake up. Why do you think they give you charity, you and the children ? Because they think you are harmless, your eyes aren't opened, you don't see the truth around you.'
       Of course, the truth is apparent -- at least to the reader -- through what Michael is going through and what he witnesses. Nevertheless, he is certainly not socially (or politically) engaged (or, apparently, engagable). On some level this works: the innocent who stands above and beyond it all, untouched by mortal sin. But it's hardly a useful mirror to hold up to the reader.
       Coetzee has Michael K think:
How fortunate that I have no children, he thought: how fortunate that I have no desire to father. I would not know what to do with a child out here in the heart of the country, who would need milk and clothes and friends and schooling. I would fail in my duties, I would be the worst of fathers. Whereas it is not hard to live a life that consists merely of passing time. I am one of the fortunate ones who escape being called.
       But what use is such a character, especially in a novel where it is society itself that is frayed to near beyond repair ? To show that man can, indeed, be an island, that he can retreat and let the world collapse around him while he tries to tend his own garden (and, possibly, maintain some dignity in a truly undignified world) is surely not of much interest -- and if that is the message to be portrayed, then would it not be more interesting to make the character a thinking man ? (Michael is not entirely thoughtless -- he is slow, not stupid -- but even in a society at peace he would be a marginal figure, and he would still not want to have children.) Life & Times of Michael K is meant to be about human dignity, and yet the character -- in the way he and his life are described -- bears more resemblance to a stray dog (or a saint) than any reader who would make his way through this book. Readers perhaps need not identify with the central character, but Coetzee appears to mean there to be a lesson to be learnt here, an example to be set -- yet chooses a character none of his readers could hope to (or, probably, want to) emulate.
       Even Coetzee appears to tire of his limited character, switching to a first-person narrative when the doctor takes over the telling of the tale. A basically decent man, the doctor comes up against the brick wall that is Michael (or Michaels, as he knows him as). The doctor never really gets it, writing a letter to Michael(s) which he closes with what is a plea for the impossible: "I appeal to you, Michaels: yield !" Instead, of course, Michael flees. This is, perhaps, a society that can only be abandoned; living within it in any way is perhaps to be complicit -- but that's a hard, harsh lesson.
       Coetzee tells his simple story well. The book is full of ugly and sad scenes, and few glimmers of hope or beauty, but Coetzee presents his material fairly well. It's the underlying message, and the aftertaste the book leaves, that is so unpleasant.
       Disturbing, and not in any good way.

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Life & Times of Michael K: Reviews: J.M.Coetzee: Other books by J.M.Coetzee under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       John M. Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. He has won many literary prizes, and was the 2003 Nobel laureate in literature.

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