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life & times of michael k

Apartheid in South Africa became an official policy in 1948. The policy created separate and unequal societies for whites and blacks in South Africa and tried to prevent mixing of any kind between the groups. Internal resistance to Apartheid began almost immediately and ranged from public protest to open warfare. Until 1994, when South Africa held a multi-racial election in which the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela won control of the government, the country was torn apart by racism and violence against both persons and property.

Into this time, put Michael K, a black man with a hair lip, a connection with the soil (the only job he can keep is working for the parks, tending the grounds), and a strong sense of duty to his mother. This might describe Life & Times of Michael K (1983), a story that Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee tells in short, almost journalistically simple, Hemmingway-like sentences. When Michael’s mother dies on their trip back to the land of her childhood, Michael is left with little to do and not much to live for. He wanders in the brutal and arbitrary atmosphere of a country suspicious of everyone, seeking mostly to be left alone, but not succeeding for very long.

Michael K is not a long book (184 pages), but it contains a lifetime of sorry and pain, both physical and emotional. The injustice it deals with is real. Michael’s attempt to deal with that injustice and his ultimate failure to rise above on more than a very personal level demonstrate the impact of racism and other inhumanities that people with power over others sometimes perpetrate.

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