J. M. Coetzee conceived of Life & Times of Michael K (1983) as an “interpretive translation” of Heinrich von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas (1808/10). Drawing on Coetzee’s notes and drafts, this essay explores his attempt to generate the literary and political “passion + urgency” of Kleist’s text, which Coetzee felt the times called for but his own writing lacked. While Michael Kohlhaas became a guerrilla out of his “passion for justice,” Michael K, despite the incessant provocations of the state, does not join the guerrillas but emerges instead as a very different kind of figure: a gardener who “just lives.” Between the guerrilla and the gardener, Coetzee elaborates an antinomy of justice not only in apartheid South Africa but inherent to the institutionalization of modern political life.

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