J.M. Coetzee – Life and Times of Michael K

Posted on | July 16, 2010 | 10 Comments

Life And Times Of Michael KLife and Times of Michael K won the Booker Prize in 1983, and it’s been one of Coetzee’s books that I’ve wanted to read for a really long time. The name intrigued me: who is Michael K? And, what is it about his life and times that merits a novel?

The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K when she helped him out of his mother into the world was that he had a hare lip. The lip curled like a snail’s foot, the left nostril gaped.

Due to his disfigured cleft, his mother institutionalised him at a young age, and when he grew up, a simpleton, he became a gardener in Cape Town – a lifestyle that suited him, with his social inhibitions and lack of intelligence. However, when his ailing mother requested him to take her back to her hometown, when the country was ravaged by war, he agreed without even thinking twice.

Unfortunately, when his mother dies on the way, and all Michael K is left with is some of her belongings, and her ashes, he continues his journey to her hometown. While many unpleasant events occur en route to Prince Albert, once Michael finds the farm (which he thinks is where his mother grew up), he makes himself comfortable there, and begins gardening again: planting his seeds, and looking after them. He’s away from the world, and he quite likes that.

Every now and again though, the story takes a turn, and Michael is forced to live in prisoner camps, and work for his food – something he just cannot fathom. As far as he is concerned, he should not be forced into a life, but choose his way of life. He understands there is a war going on around him, but then again, he just figures he’s not a part of this war, for he doesn’t want to be. Gardening is in his blood – all else is secondary.

Irritation overflowed in me. “You are not in the war? Of course you are in the war, man, whether you like it or not! This is a camp, not a holiday resort, not a convalescent home: it is a camp where we rehabilitate people like you and make you work!

This is an incredibly sad poignant book, which resonates within you long after you’ve finished it. It’s not overtly verbose, it’s not overtly descriptive; but perhaps, a more verbose book would not do justice to the character of Michael K – considered a simpleton, but still clever enough to run away from the government and not get caught? So, what is it about the life and times of Michael K during the War? Is it his refusal to succumb to the government’s way of working, as he doesn’t want to partake in the war? Or, is it his quest to find a place where he belongs, even if it is far away from humanity? Or, maybe it’s simply that he will go to any lengths to not bow down to the metaphorical machine, even if it means harming himself?

Have you read this book? Was Michael K a simpleton, or simply someone hellbent on getting his own way, at any cost?

Have you read anything else by Coetzee? What would you recommend?


10 Responses to “J.M. Coetzee – Life and Times of Michael K”

  1. Kathy
    July 17th, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    I have read Coetzee’s Disgrace (a decent book, but I would say borrow it, don’t buy it) but that’s the only one of his I’ve read. Have you read any others? Guess if I wasn’t so lazy I could click on your J.M. Coetzee tag and find out.

  2. Kerry
    July 17th, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    Coetzee is a god. I have not read this book, but I have read: Disgrace, Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime.

    The latter three are part of a semi-authobiographical/fictionalized (partly posthumous) memoir. Very experimental, but very good. I am having a hard time deciding whether to recommend Disgrace, a conventional but extremely well-written novel, or Boyhood, a brilliant look back at Coetzee’s childhood which will put you on the road to Summertime which is delicious.

    I like the three autobiographical/fictional memoir/new category books. I think Boyhood is very accessible and very enjoyable. Youth maybe a little less so, but still very, very good. Summertime is brilliant. But, you can’t go wrong with Disgrace.

    I hope you do read more Coetzee and I was happy to see this review. I intend for The Life and Times of Michael K. to be my next Coetzee, so this was a good appetite whetter.

  3. Pam
    July 18th, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    Glad to see you’re still going strong on the Coetzee Cookie!

  4. Joanna
    July 20th, 2010 @ 1:44 pm

    I’ve also been intrigued by this, I didn’t know it was so sad! I’ve read Disgrace and agree with Kathy – it’s good and worth reading, but borrow it if you can, don’t buy.

  5. anothercookiecrumbles
    July 21st, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

    @ Kathy : lol, I’ve read Disgrace. I did think it was a good book, but the story changed direction so suddenly, that I was a little bewildered!

    @ Kerry : I’ve read Summertime, but do want to read both, Boyhood and Youth. I’ve already read Disgrace, and enjoyed it, so think it would’ve been a good recommendation. :)

    Enjoy Life & Times of Michael K. As I’ve already read Summertime, it might make sense to read Boyhood next.

    @ Pam : I like his writing – still! :)

    @ Joanna : I liked Disgrace, so thank you! It’s sad, but also almost typically Coetzee, so… I’d sum it up as you did Disgrace: “good and worth reading.”

  6. charley
    July 22nd, 2010 @ 4:36 am

    I have not read any Coetzee, but Waiting for the Barbarians is on my list.

  7. claire (kiss a cloud)
    July 23rd, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    I’ve only read Disgrace, which you’ve already read, and really loved it. Thought it was excellent. I want to read this and all his other books!

  8. anothercookiecrumbles
    July 23rd, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

    @ charley : Haven’t read that one, so looking forward to your thoughts on it. Hope you love your first Coetzee experience.

    @ claire (kiss a cloud) : I know what you mean – I really want to read all his books as well. Don’t have any on the shelf at the moment though :(

  9. Kathy
    July 24th, 2010 @ 7:16 am

    I just noticed that Disgrace was made into a movie in 2008. Have you seen it? Just wondering if it’s worth watching.

  10. anothercookiecrumbles
    July 25th, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

    @ Kathy : Nope, didn’t even know they’d made a movie. It’s got a 6.6 on imdb – doesn’t seem to be that well received?

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