Life and Times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael K Study Guide

Published in 1983, Life and Times of Michael K is a realistic fiction novel by South African author J.M. Coetzee. The book follows the story of Michael K, a poor man living in South Africa and navigating a (fictitious) civil war during the period of apartheid.

Critic Herman Wittenburg accounts for Coeztee’s early explorations of plot and form: “Coetzee began writing his fourth novel on 31 May 1980. Titled ‘The Monologue of Annie,’ the story featured Albert, a thwarted poet and brother of Annie, living in an imagined future Cape Town wracked by civil war, destruction, and a dissolution of order. The milieu is directly traceable to the initial versions of the previous novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, which was also set in Cape Town, but then developed in an entirely different direction. As indicated already by the title, Annie is the narrator and Albert is completely voiceless in the story, fittingly so since he is also unable to make progress with an epic poem based on Heinrich von Kleist's novella ‘Michael Kohlhaas.’ Coetzee imagined his story only marginally in the future, in 1984, possibly referencing George Orwell's classic dystopian novel. In the evolving manuscript versions, Coetzee toyed around with these narrative ingredients, variously changing Annie into Albert's mother, shifting their white middle-class identity toward working-class ‘coloured,’ then making him a precocious child, or recasting them as estranged lovers. All these permutations ultimately yielded little progress.”

Reviews of Life and Times of Michael K were largely positive. The Los Angeles Times called the novel “A major work of crystalline intensity,” The Evening Standard reviewer said it was "a truly astonishing novel... I finished Life & Times of Michael K in a state of elation, for all the misery and suffering it contains. I cannot recommend it highly enough." The New York Times Book Review deemed it “So purifying to the senses that one comes away feeling that one’s eye has been sharpened, one’s hearing vivified.”

The novel won the 1983 Booker Prize (now called the Man Booker). It is considered one of Coetzee’s finest works.