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J M Coetzee: Life and Times of Michael K

Michael K is physically and mentally handicapped but, more importantly and more bitterly, he is a victim of apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s when, in the views of many, including Coetzee and other South African writers, there was a virtual state of war in the country. Michael is a gardener for the City of Cape Town and his mother has dropsy. She wants to return to her hometown of Prince Albert. About to be laid off, Michael quits his job. They wait for the special permits to leave the city but they never come so they set off. But the mother dies on the way, leaving Michael alone and stranded. He takes refuge on a deserted farm, living off the land and forgetting Cape Town and his past. The farm is visited by an army deserter and Michael has to leave. He never finds peace, running away, taken to a resettlement camp, escaping, captured again. It is no surprise he ends where he started – in Cape Town. So what is the point? If he can survive, so can you? Or that even an insignificant, harmless man like Michael K (compare the name with that of Joseph K) is going to be a victim in the South African apartheid society? I think it is clear that Coetzee is saying, as Kafka did sixty years before, they are going to get you whoever you are.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by Secker and Warburg