The Pequod Review:
Set in South Africa in the middle of a civil war, Life and Times of Michael K is one of J.M. Coetzee’s most intense and unsettling novels. The book is the story of Michael, a simpleminded, harelipped and fatherless 31-year old. When the novel begins, Cape Town is under siege, and Michael and his ailing mother Anna have decided to leave for the town of her birth. Anna passes away on the journey, but Michael continues on with her ashes. Over the remainder of his trip, Michael comes into contact with various soldiers who treat him cruelly and wantonly, accusing him of various baseless crimes. He is even drafted into at least two forced labor camps, and is later hospitalized when he becomes too weak and malnourished to work. When the novel concludes, Michael has escaped the camp and returned to the Cape Town apartment where he and his mother used to live.
The strength of Coetzee's book is the way in which he shows how authority and political power are exercised on the weak and helpless, especially in times of conflict. To illustrate the institutional nature of power, the people Michael comes into contact with are identified by their professions or functions, not their names – the solider, the policeman, the shop assistant, etc. It is an effective form of history-from-below as it shows how larger political events are perceived by unsophisticated citizens. And Coetzee’s writing is enchanting and precise. Highly recommended.