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Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
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Sep 05, 2010

** spoiler alert ** Review: Life & Times of Michael K
By: J. M. Coetzee
The novel, Life & Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee, taken place in South Africa during the war for apartheid, is about a young gardener, Michael K, who takes on a journey with his mother to escape from the city and back to her rural birthplace. Michael quitted his job in Cape Town to bring his sick mother back to her birthplace, where she spent her the happiest times in her life. During the journey, his mother dies and all Michael is left with are her ashes and some invaluable possessions. With no destination, Michael wanders around looking for food and a place to sleep. On the way to Prince Albert, he gets detained for not having his traveling papers. After he arrived in a farm that he remembers his mother mentioning, he finds the place abandoned and empty. He stays a while until a man arrived and started treating him like a servant. Michael leaves for the mountains and gets picked up by police and sent to a working camp where he is provided shelter. He yearns to leave the working camp and one day he escapes. He goes back to the farm and hides when a group of men came and use his garden. He stayed in hiding until he was found by soldiers and sent to a camp in Cape Town after suspecting he was helping rebels. He is treated by a doctor who was interested in his condition and believed he was wrongly accused. The doctor tries to help Michael but he escapes and goes back to the apartment he lived in with his mother in Cape Town. There he reflects on his journey.
The novel, which is divided into three parts, has a very interesting structure. The first part is about Michael K’s escape with his mother, part two was about his journey alone, and at last, the third part was from the point of view of a doctor who took interest in Michael. Even from the beginning of the book, Michael K is immediately captured as a fascinating character. Michael was born with a “hare lip, curled like a snail’s foot, the left nostril gaped (3).” His own mother hated him because of this physical imperfection. His physical deformity leaves a symbolic mark that signifies his importance in the novel right away. People treated him differently because of this. Michael is on a quest for freedom throughout this whole novel. He starts his journey originally to fulfill his sick mother’s wish to go back to her birthplace, Prince Albert. On the journey, he faces many obstacles, such as his mother’s death and being trapped in a working camp, which leads him to realize all he yearns for is freedom. As his journey continues, his real purpose to Prince Albert is to find freedom. He tells his doctor that he “used to think about flying (133).” Flying symbolizes the wish for freedom. All he wanted was to be free and be able to grow his own food on Earth.
The novel bought a new light to the reality of apartheid in South Africa. It gave me a different insight of the war through the eyes of Michael K. His experience from Cape Town to a rural place showed how much he yearned for freedom and to just live life simply. The novel, though not focus on the war itself but the lives of women, children and men just trying to survive each day during the outbreak of war, showed me how difficult it was to obtain freedom during apartheid.

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