The strangest (and ultimately most brilliant) feature of this novel is that J. M. Coetzee does not identify the race of his protagonist, Michael K, or of any of his characters, seemingly a highly pertinent fact in a novel about contemporary South Africa. The setting and circumstances of the novel encourage the reader to assume that Michael and Anna K are black, the soldiers and farmers white, the guerrillas black, the doctor white, and so on. At the same time, by pointedly omitting any mention of race, Coetzee presents the reader with an allegory of South Africa without the factor of race. He thereby encourages identification with his protagonist and understanding of his characters’ basic humanity and inhumanity. Stripped of its racist justifications, South Africa is revealed for what it basically is: a cruel police state, a vast bureaucracy of prison keepers and prisoners. Yet Coetzee shows that even in South Africa there are a few kind people left.
Michael K’s Kafkaesque name and character are both consistent with the police-state atmosphere. As a realistic character, Michael is rather dull, an example of minimal man, without personality or social attachments, almost without a will to live. It is only as an allegorical figure, a victim and survivor of the police state, that Michael is interesting. Michael resembles Albert Camus’ alienated stranger, but there is a basic difference: Slow-witted Michael still retains his loyalties, feelings, and...
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