Picks and Pans Review: Life and Times of Michael K

updated 01/09/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/09/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

by J.M. Coetzee

The protagonist of this novel is a 31-year-old South African gardener with a harelip. He lives in a city where a small civil war is going on. Coetzee, a teacher at the University of Cape Town, is obviously using Michael K as a symbol—of what? While the prose is refreshingly clean, the central character is much too abstract. It's never stipulated, for example, whether Michael K is black, "colored" or white. Near the end, the author shifts the point of view to that of an official in a prison-camp clinic where Michael K is sent. A doctor says of him, "He is a simpleton, and not even an interesting simpleton." Michael K is more than a simpleton, but he's not a whole character. Like fellow South African writers Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer and playwright Athol Fugard, Coetzee is dealing bravely with the impossible situation in his homeland. He is on the side of the angels, but many readers won't find meaning in a Kafkaesque fable that is unrelieved in its depiction of pain, hunger, fear and mindless and searing inhumanity. (Viking, $13.95)

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