Life and Times of Michael K was awarded the British Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1983, as was J. M. Coetzee’s later novel Disgrace (1999), marking the only time a single author has been given the award more than once. In 2003, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which recognized him for his morally and ethically charged examinations of South African culture, especially of the implications and effects of apartheid (state-sanctioned racial segregation and oppression).
Many of Coetzee’s earlier works, including Dusklands (1974), In the Heart of the Country (1977), and Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), are considered by critics and reviewers to be allegorical to some extent; Life and Times of Michael K is no exception. Coetzee has at times been criticized in South Africa for his allegorical impulse, which his critics have believed to obscure his resistance to the Nationalist apartheid regime of 1948 to 1994. Those critics felt that he had an obligation to make this resistance explicit rather than implicit in his fiction. Other critics, however, have argued that Coetzee’s ethical aims for his fiction are more complex than mere political commentary.
Although the political landscape and time line of Life and Times of Michael K are purposefully vague, there are many details that imply an allegorical near-future South Africa where exaggerated apartheid-like conditions exist. The “travel permits” K needs reflect the “pass laws” of apartheid designed to facilitate segregation by limiting the movements of nonwhites within South Africa. Although there were not explicit “rehabilitation” or “internment” camps in South Africa in 1983, there were strict zoning regulations based on race.
The state institution for “children with disabilities” that K attends as a youth and that primes him for a life of manual labor mirrors the curriculum of black schools during apartheid. When K is captured at one point, he is labeled “CM—40—NFA—Unemployed”; the CM means “colored male,” one of the three possible racial categories under...
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