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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Life & Times of Michael K (1983) by J.M. Coeteze

Book Review
Life & Times of Michael K. (1983)
 by J.M. Coeteze

  Life & Times of Michael K. was the first Booker Prize winning book written by South African turned Australian author J.M. Coeteze.  His other Booker Prize winner was Disgrace, in 1999.  He followed that with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.  Since he 2003 he's published four more novels and some short story collections.   He stays out of the spotlight.   I'm a fan of Coeteze.  I'm not sure he deserves 10 titles in the 1001 Books list.  Does any author deserve that many entries?

  His ten titles from 2006 was cut to five in the first revision.  You'd expect a Booker Prize winning book to make the cut into the core 700 titles, and it does.  Like all of Coeteze's books, Life & Times of Michael K. is both deeply satisfying and disturbing at the same time.   Likewise, his South African landscapes are both familiar and alien.  Like Foe, another Coeteze written 1001 Books entry, Michael K. draws on the conventions of Robinson Crusoe- Michael K. isn't marooned on an island, he's isolated in a society at war, friend and family-less, desiring only his freedom.

   Descriptions of Michael K. often bring up the theme of human dignity, the will of the protagonist for freedom even at the cost of his own life.   He wants to sit quietly, not work for money so he can eat, and not, in fact, eat.  It is his failure to properly feed himself that for me was the enduring image of Michael K.   Although set in a civil war in South Africa, it might as well be a post-apocalyptic scenario.  South Africa, even at the best of times, always seems to be hovering at the edge of catastrophe.  Coeteze, writing before the collapse of the apartheid regime is careful to omit explicit references to race.  I had to resort to the Wikipedia page to discover that Michael K. is classified as "colored" or mixed-race, under the scheme of the apartheid regime.

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