on January 29, 2014
Written at a time that Apartheid was still very strong, Coetzee came up with a philosophical account of life in that environment, which in this case is a surreal post-civil war South Africa with all the horrors that come with the aftermath of a civil war, especially an African civil war. However, Michael K. makes the effort to shield himself from the harshness of his environment by taking on a life of existential survival. In fact the lesson from this book applies to all environments or situations where society makes it difficult for a private person to live a personal life that is independent of the forces of the environment. Other recommended reads are Disciples of Fortune, Disgrace, The Usurper and Other Stories. I like books like this for the thought-provoking and insightful nature of the story.
on November 22, 2012
From the begining this novel lacked any unpredictability. The main character of the story Michael is definitely a man of reslience but I had a hard time being convinced of this.
on June 25, 2006
LIFE AND TIMES reminded me in many ways of two other books I've recently come across: Hosseni's KITE RUNNER and another book called THE BARK OF THE DOGWOOD, both of which are great and riveting. But this neat little book about a slow-witted man in civil-war torn South Africa will really make you think. Michael K is part Huck Finn, part Rodya from "Crime and Punishment", part Gollum, and part Robinson Crusoe (and possibly, Josepf K from Kafka's "The Trial"). He takes on a characteristic of each of those characters during his adventure to get his mother back to the land of her youth. He has an uncomfortable relationship with food, and his struggle to feed himself is very odd indeed. After reading this book, I felt that I should build a cabin for myself far away from everyone else and create my own environment.
on September 14, 2003
Coetzee is razor-concise as ever, and elegantly combines many ideas into one person. I got a lot from the book's observations of a man in natural seclusion, growing into a purely spiritual being. The notion is Romantic, but, I feel, true. I recommend this book to people who find being alone and lost enriching. I do.
on April 4, 2003
In a world flooded by turmoil and bereft of innocence, Michael K, simple, skeletal gardener and loyal son, stands alone. In the midst of war in South Africa, K withdraws himself from life, as we know it, and regresses, devolves, in order to survive his true bereavement; the loss of opportunity to tend the gardens of the city. This may appear callous at first, considering the event of his mother's death early in the story, and perhaps oversimplified, but K is 'simple', after all.
The backdrop of war is a clever one. War relies heavily on definition, on who we are and which side we are on, with the hope of those in power that a conclusion to this issue will indicate what is to be 'done' with us. It is an assumption the other characters in the story have, their seeming ability to define or classify K variously as homeless, as a walking representation of death, or as a saviour, that builds the concept of his character for the reader. He fits all, and simultaneously none, of these personas. K is resistant to any entirely accurate definition, as everyone in existence is, and it is refreshing, in a world so obsessed with naming and classifying, to be reminded of this.
There is a poignant contrast between K's worldview and his occupation. He is very much involved with the 'smaller picture', primarily focussed on what he is able to do 'right now', looking to his own immediate experiences as a guide. Even his name, 'K', is a reduction to the barest of necessities. But gardening, for which he expresses his only great desire, is innately long-term, requiring the ability to predict and counter outcomes and problems, respectively. This polarity demonstrates, with precision, two spheres of human existence, the instinctual and the rational. Another contrast is expressed through K's desire to grow food, and his unconscionably skeletal frame. His physical form is the one area of K that is capable of reflecting the loss of 'self' he carries, while simultaneously seeking the sustenance that might see him endure long enough to find it.
Despite the evident references to an Apartheid South Africa, and indeed, this was the context for Coetzee while he wrote the 1983 Booker Prize winner, this transcendental story is truly about finding a sense of unity within ourselves. It is about the solidarity our humanity affords us, and the achingly unavoidable frailty so inadmissible by most, and yet welcomed by Michael K, often required to reach it.
on January 9, 2003
Each sentence uttered by Michael K, the anti-hero of this book, is the voice of sanity, understanding, compassion and truth in a book full of voices of hate and confusion. Of course it's Michael K who is alledged to be the idiot, the simpleton. He's the only one who has chosen to listen to the voice inside each of us that says, "This is poison, avoid it, this is paradise, experience it now and stay here". I was reminded life isn't so very confusing when it's pared down to simplicity. I don't ever want to be the person with a weapon in my hand telling someone I'm just following orders or I'm just doing my job. Thank you, Mr. Coetzee for writing books for us to read.
on September 30, 2002
Like a character from Kafka, we never learn Michael K's last name. However, unlike Kafka's characters he chooses a different response to the oppresive society in which he finds himself. He chooses desertion. Rather than take on the system, he flees it and tries to construct a life of dignity.
Unfortunately that choice brings him hunger and loneliness. We can liken the consequences of his choice to those made or imposed on people living outside of the suffocating world of corporations and money. They are treated with contempt and subsist on low income. The choice of living outside of the machine is not always a pleasant one. The hero does not live happily ever after but will always be forced to choose between a dignified life and one of comfort. If you think you can strike a "golden mean" between the two, wake up!
on August 27, 2002
J. M. Coetzee was awared the Booker Prize for this book back in 1983, so I had great expectations for this book. "Life & Times of Michael K" did not disappoint me, and I think it is highly deserving of the Booker prize.
The story is set in South Africa, in the midst of poverty, Apartheid, and Civil war. We enter the story when Michael K is 30 years old, and working as a gardener. Michael K was born with a harelip, which has never been fixed. His mother, Anna K, works as a maid for the Buhrmann family. As the civil war erupts the family Anna was working for flees out of town. While continuing to watch out for the apartment and the belongings to her employer, Anna falls ill. She has only one wish that K takes her back to Prince Albert where she was born.
On their way there (fleeing in the night, K pushing his mother in wheelbarrow) a day or two in to their journey, Anna is admitted to a hospital where she shortly after passes away. K is devastated with grief, and he looses all energy to continue. He finally makes it to Prince Albert, carrying his mothers ashes in a box. The war catches up with K, and he is taken to a camp where everyone is given food and shelter in return for their labour. K (or "Michaels" as one of the guards calls him) seeks no physical contacts with others, he feels no hunger and as a result, we see this mentally sleeping skeleton emerge.
K continues to flee from the camp where he is held. We follow his struggle to live his life the way he wants to, free and as one with nature.
The author introduces us to a topic that those of us who are not South Africans will probably never quite understand. Coetzee is a splendid writer, and his writing style is compelling, dark, but immensely beautiful.
A remarkable read reflecting on a man's inner strength. Highly recommended!
on July 19, 2002
This book is perhaps the easier to read of Coetzee's but it is nonetheless not easy. This book captures so much of what it is to exist. His simple minded main character's confusion and struggles are so well articulated that we see through his eyes and experience his feelings. Like all of Coetzee's work, this book makes you think about your own existence and makes you feel uneasy about it. I got this very uncomfortable sense as I read along questioning our purpose and place in the order of thing while capturing what to me seems to be a convincing sense of the unease of the whole nation of South Africa in these transition times.
on June 28, 2002
Read this the day after I read "Disgrace." Compelling, beautifully written, and the only book I've ever read to top "Angela's Ashes" in poverty and depression.
Left me with more questions than answers. Fascinating that in South Africa, possibly the only country where race has more social weight than the U.S., races are not part of char. descriptions. Would I be able to pick up on more subtle cues if I knew more about S. African culture, or are they meant to be ambiguous? Also, I wish I understood more about the history of the book's setting- Who's fighting in this civil war, what are the sides?
My only criticism, is that Coetzee doesn't seem to know how to end his books. Both this and "Disgrace" just seem to trail off, leaving me unsatisfied.