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Life and Times of Michael K    by J. M. Coetzee order for
Life and Times of Michael K
by J. M. Coetzee
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2005 (1984)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

Life and Times of Michael K is set in a time of war in apartheid-era South Africa. A young man with a disfiguring hare lip and limited mental ability cares for his mother. When she can no longer work, he tries to take her home to her birthplace. She dies along the way, and he becomes an outcast, to himself and everyone else. At first he lives in a cave, then on an abandoned farm, then he is caught and imprisoned. He escapes and flees to the farm, where he is once again caught. Since he has learned to eat less and less he must go to a hospital to recover.

At this point the novel changes to the point of view of the attending doctor. Against all reason the doctor is powerfully affected by Michael's plight. He cannot understand why his patient will neither eat nor speak, and begins to philosophize about who Michael is and what his existence means: 'it always seemed to me that someone had scuffled together a handful of dust, spat on it, and patted it into the shape of a rudimentary man, making one or two mistakes (the mouth, and without a doubt the contents of the head), omitting one or two details (the sex), but coming up nevertheless in the end with a genuine little man of earth ... with fingers ready hooked and back ready bent ... while unnoted as ever somewhere far away the grinding of the wheels of history continues.' But even the doctor's patient ministrations cannot change Michael's destiny, and the last part of the book chronicles his escape once again.

Coetzee has written, in Life and Times of Michael K, a spare but moving account of a lost soul in South Africa.

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