J. M. Coetzee


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Showing 1 - 6 of 6 annotations associated with Coetzee, J. M.

Life & Times of Michael K

Coetzee, J. M.

Last Updated: Jan-09-2018
Annotated by:
Galbo, Sebastian

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

A civil war rages inexorably in J. M. Coetzee’s novel, Life & Times of Michael K. Details of the war are vague, but the fighting will determine whether “minorities will have a say in their destinies” (Coetzee 157). Riots splinter communities, peoples are displaced, the military patrols and slaughters, and prison camps are erected. The novel’s first half introduces an unlikely protagonist at the center of the bloody tumult: Michael K, a municipal gardener—a gentle “simpleton” with a harelip “curled like a snail’s foot”—who cares for his ailing mother in Cape Town (3). Sick and unable to work, K’s mother resolves to return to her birthplace and girlhood home, Prince Albert, a far-flung cluster of homesteads in the Karoo, where she hopes to convalesce peacefully. Their migration permits, however, never arrive, likely lost in the abyss of State bureaucracy. Gathering his mother and their few possessions in a makeshift wheelbarrow, K attempts the arduous journey anyway but the passage is thwarted by a government checkpoint. As his mother’s condition deteriorates, she is hospitalized and dies, her body cremated before K gives hospital officials consent.  

The novel’s lulling elliptical cycle pushes K along the currents of departure and circumvention, to capture and escape. Pressing on to Prince Albert where he will deliver his mother’s remains, K is arrested and incarcerated in a railcar where he and other prisoners remove landslide rubble from a remote part of the rail line. Released after finishing the labor, K arrives to Prince Albert where he settles on the property of the ramshackle homestead and begins contentedly scavenging. Far from the tremors of war, he hunts birds, nibbles roots and bulbs, turns over rocks for grubs, drinks from streams, and, in a fit of wild hunger, drowns and slaughters a wild goat. All the while he finds a package of pumpkin and melon seeds that for the rest of his time on the property he will sedulously plant and water— “[t]his was the beginning of his life as a cultivator” (59). Immersed in this blanched world, at the center of its arid winds and mineral expanses, K devotedly coaxes his mean crop to life. But the war encroaches on K’s hiding place and he absconds to a mountain cave where he hides, and nearly starves.  

The stillness, silence, and sunlight of the Karoo seep into K’s bones: “If I were cut, he thought, holding his wrists out, looking at his wrists, the blood would no longer gush from me but seep, and after a little seeping dry and heal. I am becoming smaller and harder and drier every day” (67). Imperceptibly, K becomes the ephemeral ‘stuff’ of this harsh land: “He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything as a speck upon the surface on an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant-feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust” (97). K is shortly captured by the military and forced into a resettlement camp. Through the elliptical current of the novel, he escapes and returns to the Prince Albert homestead, where he finds his crop trampled. He nourishes the vines back to life and, in a moment of lonely exaltation, grills pumpkin flesh: “All that remains is to be a tender of the soil. […] He chewed with tears of joy in his eyes” (113). What K seeks, or what is seeking him, is a life of solitude, remote from peril and unrest, living in quiet reciprocity with the earth, exercising simple cultivation—a skill conspicuously anachronistic (but universally essential) in an age marked by the depravities of war.  

Wringing nourishment from veld-grown pumpkins, however, leaves K famished, and winds and squalls gut his makeshift shanty. Soon K is picked up, again, by a military patrol (he is suspected of abetting rebels camping in the mountains) that consigns him to a government hospital. The novel’s latter half is narrated by the hospital’s medical officer, a caring man who, doubtful of the war’s objectives, takes special interest in K’s recovery. By now, severely malnourished, K resembles “someone out of Dachau” (146). The medical officer is baffled by K, not for his uncooperative responses nor refusal to eat hospital food, but because of his status as a kind of ahistorical oddity in a time of modern warfare: “a human soul above and beneath classification, a soul blessedly untouched by doctrine, untouched by history, a soul stirring its wings within that stiff sarcophagus […] a creature left over from an earlier age, like a coelacanth or the last man to speak Yaqui” (151). The medical officer realizes K’s condition lies beyond simple diagnosis; rather, K’s body craves “a different kind of food, food that no camp could supply” (163). Sometime in the night, K vanishes from the hospital with his packet of pumpkin seeds, moving toward another remote patch of earth to cultivate.

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Diary of a Bad Year

Coetzee, J. M.

Last Updated: Jun-16-2008
Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

 

A well-respected, but aging and infirm author living in Australia has been invited to submit his thoughts on the world to a German publisher. Consisting first of his 'Strong Opinions' on contemporary sociopolitical controversies (such as terrorism, paedophilia, Al Qaeda) and then his 'softer' opinions (on such topics as birds, compassion, Dostoevsky and writing), these short essays lie across the top of the page. Beneath them run one, then two narratives, laid out like ribbons underneath. These consist of the story of the writer's relationship with Anya, and of Anya's relationship with her boyfriend in light of her interactions with the writer, including his plan to scam the author out of his money.

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Disgrace

Coetzee, J. M.

Last Updated: Dec-04-2006
Annotated by:
Belling, Catherine

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

David Lurie is a scholar of the English Romantic poets, now professor of communications in Cape Town in newly post-apartheid South Africa. He is fired in disgrace for sexual harassment after having an affair with one of his students, Melanie Isaacs, or raping her (our definition of the act is deliberately blurred until later). He goes to stay with his daughter, Lucy, who kennels dogs and grows flowers on a smallholding in the Eastern Cape, and he passes his time helping Lucy's friend, Bev, in the euthanasia and disposal of sick and unwanted dogs.

Then he and Lucy are attacked by three black men who arrive at the farm. They pour lighter fluid over him and set him on fire, and they gang-rape Lucy. One of the attackers is a relative of Lucy's neighbour, a black man named Petrus, and protected by him. Lucy refuses to press charges or to leave, but Lurie drives back to Cape Town.

On the way, he stops at the home of Melanie Isaacs and meets her father, who invites him to stay for dinner. He apologizes to her father, who asks him some difficult questions about forgiveness and about being in disgrace. There are parallels between him and Mr. Isaacs in relation to their respective raped daughters. In Cape Town Lurie finds that his house has been broken into and everything stolen.

When Bev calls him to say that Lucy is not well he goes back to the farm, where he discovers that she is pregnant as a result of the rape, has decided to keep the child, and intends to agree to Petrus's offer of marriage: if she becomes one of his wives, in name only, she will be allowed to stay on the farm (which he will now own) under his protection.

She resists all her father's objections. He finds a room in the town near her farm, continues to help Bev killing the dogs, and, while he awaits the birth of his grandchild, works on an opera he is writing, about the abandoned mistress of the poet Byron, who yearns for a time that is past.

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Slow Man

Coetzee, J. M.

Last Updated: Jan-30-2006
Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

After being struck by a speeding car while riding his bicycle, Paul Rayment suffers extensive damage to his right leg. An above-knee amputation is performed by a young surgeon, Dr. Hansen. Paul is a 60-year-old former photographer who lives in Australia. Divorced and childless, he has no one to assist him with the activities of daily living after he is discharged from the hospital. He refuses a prosthesis. Paul's accident and loss of a limb have triggered a reexamination of his life. He now regrets never having fathered a child. Paul's life is further complicated by three unusual women.

He hires a Croatian lady, Marijana Jokic, as his day nurse and aid. He is attracted to and dependent on the much younger Marijana. Although she is married and has three children, he lusts for her. He offers to act as a godfather for Marijana's children and provide funds for their education. Drago, Marijana's oldest child, lives with Paul for a while. Drago and his father build a customized cycle to convey Paul, but the crippled man doubts he will ever ride it.

Paul has a single sexual encounter with a woman blinded by a tumor. Her name is Marianna. He is blindfolded during the affair and pays her afterwards. A novelist with a weak heart, Elizabeth Costello, intrudes on Paul. The elderly woman is mysterious. She pesters him, occupies his apartment without an invitation, and peppers him with questions. In time, all three females fade from his world, leaving Paul still struggling to adapt to loss and a new life.

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The Blow

Coetzee, J. M.

Last Updated: Dec-01-2005
Annotated by:
Woodcock, John

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

While riding his bicycle, Paul Rayment, a 60-year-old Australian photographer, is struck by a car. He winds up in the hospital, has a leg amputated, and returns to his quarters to contemplate his future and deal with a series of nurses sent by the hospital social worker. Paul is divorced and has no living family.

His future looks bleak, and none of the nurses is satisfactory until the appearance of Marijana, a middle-aged Croatian woman with a young daughter, a teenage son, and a husband. The narrator gradually falls in love with Marijana, but by degrees his lust sublimates into an intense devotion to helping her son Drago survive his motorcycle phase and achieve his educational and professional objectives.

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Age of Iron

Coetzee, J. M.

Last Updated: Feb-18-1997
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Mrs. Curren, a retired classics professor in Cape Town, South Africa, is dying of cancer. The novel is in the form of an extended letter to her only daughter who has fled apartheid and lives in the United States. During her final days, Mrs. Curren takes in a homeless alcoholic man who appears on her doorstep. Her housekeeper's son Bheki is involved in an uprising. While helping his mother search for him, Mrs. Curren witnesses the burning of a black township and discovers the boy's bullet-ridden body.

Later, Bheki's friend, who seeks refuge at her house, is killed there by government security forces. In anger and despair, Mrs. Curren is forced to confront the "age of iron" apartheid has wrought. Her only companion in all this is the alcoholic drifter, who agrees (or does he?) to send this last letter to her daughter.

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