Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Life and Times of Michael K is organized around a double exemplum, an exposition of the two sides of the title. Despite the narrative form, plot is less important here than the display of conditions during the life and times of Michael K. The reader is encouraged to identify with Michael, but his life is no more important to the scheme of the novel than the times in which he lives. The novel consists, in essence, of the dissolution of the state of South Africa and the causes thereof, although these topics are not set forth in full. The times of Michael K give a partial picture of the dissolution, and his life suggests some of the causes.

The state is dissolving because it is under heavy attack; no fighting, however, is ever shown. This omission centers attention on the inner causes of dissolution: the soulless but also fatalistic nature of the state. The state is rotten at the core, as though established on the wrong basis to begin with, and now incapable of change. Like a vast machine, the system grinds on even as it falls apart.

Stated simply, the wrong basis of the state is that it uses people rather than serves them, and two of its typical victims are Anna and Michael. Yet, like William Faulkner, Coetzee has his people who endure, and Michael K represents them. Michael cannot kill himself even when he tries. Although he tries to sleep himself to death, the semihibernation merely enables him to survive on little food. Even the system works to preserve him, waking him, interning him, and bringing him back to health each time he is on the verge of expiring. His insignificance keeps other people from seriously hurting him. All he has to do is wait, and he is an expert at waiting.