Life and Times of Michael K

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Since publishing Dusklands in 1974, J. M. Coetzee has come closer and closer to writing a novel in which he plainly comments upon the injustices of white dominance and apartheid in his native South Africa. In Dusklands, his first novel, Coetzee juxtaposes two aggressors, an American bureaucrat designing a method for propagandizing the Vietnamese and a white South African hunter seeking elephant tusks, both of whom misunderstand the peoples they seek to control. In the Heart of the Country, Coetzee’s second novel and winner of the 1977 Central News Agency (CNA) Literary Award in South Africa, is a mad spinster’s narrative of violations of the sexual taboo between white sheep farmers and their black hired hands. Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee’s most celebrated novel to date, which also won a CNA award in 1980, concerns the unprovoked brutality with which a remote white government treats the docile natives whom it rules. His first three novels are violent depictions of white domination, connected only allegorically to present-day South Africa.

In Life & Times of Michael K, winner of Great Britain’s top award for fiction, the Booker Prize, Coetzee is moving away from allegory toward more or less contemporary realism. No longer is he treating racial exploitation in the past or within one household or in a mythical time and place. This novel takes place in an unspecified but not too distant future: South Africa has been ravaged by the civil war between whites and blacks—a civil war in which, according to The New York Times, underground liberation movements have destroyed some 432 million dollars of property in five years.

The novel focuses on thirty-one-year-old Michael K, born a simpleton with a harelip and a gaping left nostril. Coetzee never identifies Michael by race but, as various clues suggest—his mother worked as a maid, and a medical officer describes him as “one of a multitude in the second class”—he is probably black. The action of the novel is set in motion when Michael is laid off from his job as a gardener for the city of Cape Town.

When he loses his job, Michael decides to take his bedridden mother, Anna, to the Visagie farm in Prince Albert where she spent her childhood. Michael and Anna apply for an exit permit that never arrives, and so they decide to leave illegally. Michael wheels his mother away from the city in a ricksha that he has built. Because they lack an exit permit, guards of the Free Corps, who, according to an officer, “... are fighting ... so that minorities will have a say in their destinies,” turn the couple back. Two days later, they try again—this time they get by the checkpoint—but Anna’s illness worsens, and Michael takes her to a hospital, where she dies. A nurse hands Michael a suitcase packed with his mother’s belongings and two bags; one contains clean clothes and toiletries, the other, Anna’s ashes.

Deciding to take his mother’s ashes to the Visagie farm, Michael continues the journey and encounters obstacles along the way. A soldier takes his mother’s purse at gunpoint, telling him that he must contribute to the war effort. (The soldier tosses a ten-rand note, about ten dollars, to Michael as a “tip.”) At the next checkpoint, Michael, with all others who lack an exit pass, is herded onto a train and carried to a place where he is forced to repair railroad tracks. A day later, Michael slips away and continues his trek to Prince Albert.

Michael arrives at the Visagie farm only to find that the family has abandoned it. He buries Anna’s ashes in a field and lives for a time on birds and a wild ewe. His solitude ends when Visagie’s grandson returns to the farm, a deserter from the army. Thinking Michael is a servant, the grandson demands that Michael keep him supplied with food. Dissatisfied with the birds that Michael brings to him, he sends Michael into town for groceries; instead, Michael flees to the mountains nearby, where he lives on lizards, grubs, and flowers. Before long, however, sick and malnourished, Michael descends the...

(The entire section is 1689 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Atlantic. CCLIII, February, 1984, p. 105.

Blake, Patricia. Review in Time. CXXIII (January 2, 1984), p. 84.

Brink, Andre. “Writing Against Big Brother: Notes on Apocalyptic Fiction in South Africa,” in World Literature Today. LVIII (Spring, 1984), pp. 189-194.

Daymond, M. J., et al., eds. Momentum: On Recent South African Writing, 1984.

Gordimer, Nadine. Review in The New York Review of Books. XXXI (February 2, 1984), p. 3.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 15, 1984, p. 2.

Maclean’s. XCVII, January 30, 1984, p. 49.

New Statesman. CVI, September 30, 1983, p. 29.

Ozick, Cynthia. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX (December 11, 1983), p. 1.

Prescott, Peter S. Review in Newsweek. CIII (January 2, 1984), p. 63.

Roberts, Sheila. “South African Post-Revolutionary Fiction,” in Standpunte. XXXV (June, 1982), pp. 44-51.

Vogue. CLXXIV, January, 1984, p. 60.