Critical Context

Coetzee has an apocalyptic imagination that prophetically projects the siege mentality of white South Africans under apartheid. His imagination first reached its true form in Waiting for the Barbarians, about an unnamed “civilization” under counterattack by indigenous “barbarians” whom it has quelled or pushed back. The protagonist is a frontier magistrate who questions his government’s brutal treatment of the barbarians, gets a taste of the treatment himself, and ends in an ecstasy of guilt and identification waiting for the advancing barbarians. Life and Times of Michael K looks at a similar scenario from the other side, though the setting is much more explicit. Through these two works, Coetzee has established himself as an important part of the literary conscience of white South Africa.

Coetzee’s technique, which suggests some combination of William Faulkner and Franz Kafka, has sometimes been called heavy-handed. As Life and Times of Michael K shows, however, Coetzee is capable of shrewdly using his technique to open up universal dimensions of his themes. Through his technique, Coetzee indicates that the imperial mentality and racism are not merely South Africa’s problems.