Dan Sandman

19: Life and Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 06/05/2016 at 12:00 pm

Life and Times of Michael KMichael K is a gardener caught in the midst of a civil war. K leaves the city of Cape Town and heads to the country in search of his mother’s childhood home. On his Odyssey, our unlikely hero encounters several strangers, each effected by the war in a different way. He also encounters a police state built on the backs of concentration camp workers.

J. M Coetzee published his masterpiece in 1983, the year I was born. Between its publication and now, thirty-two years have passed. Over these three decades, apartheid South Africa has become post-apartheid South Africa; a new system with new problems of its own. But whereas critics with an historical angle would justifiably locate this work within the politics of 1983, I would like to talk very briefly about its place within the history of literature and the modern novel.

There is certainly a Greek influence here, as with any story concerning a hero whom, like Ulysses, travels away from home, comes up against a number of trials, transforms their heroic character and finally returns to where the adventure started. Then there are the references to Robinson Crusoe somewhere in the middle of the story; as K lives the life of an isolated farmer, growing pumpkins and hunting various species with his catapult. In my usual three paragraphs, written every Friday morning and published at twelve noon precisely, I have just given Life and Times of Michael K an historical context and, in the third paragraph, connected it to two examples of my wider reading.

There are many ways to talk about books, and there are as just many ways to read them.


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