(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Narrated mostly from the third-person point of view of Michael K, the novel begins with a summary of his bleak, uneventful life and family history. Michael is the third surviving child (all by different fathers, long gone) of Anna K, a Cape Town scrubwoman and domestic servant, herself the product of itinerant farm workers, including an alcoholic father. Michael is born with a harelip, which would be easily corrected by an operation, but no one ever bothers. Slow-witted, teased by other children, Michael grows up lonely and unschooled until his mother enters him in Huis Norenius, a state school for “variously afflicted and unfortunate children.” At the age of fifteen, he becomes a gardener with the Cape Town Department of Parks and Gardens. There, he quietly passes the years, visiting his mother on weekends but otherwise not associating with women.

When Michael is thirty-one, this routine changes. His mother, grown dropsical and old before her time, longs to return to the farming country of her childhood to die. She persuades Michael to quit his work (just before he is laid off) and to accompany her. Their decision becomes more pressing when a riot almost destroys the neighborhood in which Anna works, leaving her unemployed and ill. The rioting, widespread unemployment, and homeless people roaming the streets are all symptoms of the social disintegration occurring as a result of the South African war, apparently a civil war that the government is slowly losing.

Because of the war, Michael and Anna’s simple trip to the countryside becomes an odyssey, and another occasion for displaying the social disintegration. One institution that has not disintegrated but only grown and become worse is the state bureaucracy. Michael buys train tickets, but...

(The entire section is 724 words.)

Life and Times of Michael K Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Michael K is born with a harelip in Cape Town, South Africa. His mother, Anna K, shelters him from other children and takes him with her to work: Anna tends the house of a wealthy white family, the Buhrmans, who live in Sea Point, near Cape Town. At an early age, because of his deformity and his slowness of speech and thought, K is placed in a state-run institution called Huis Norenius. At fifteen, he becomes a gardener for the state, slowly rising through the ranks to gain increasing autonomy. K does not have friends other than his mother, and he is most at ease alone.

When K is thirty-one, his mother is in the hospital and South Africa is at civil war. After Anna is released from the hospital, she is too weak to care for herself, and K returns to live with her in her broom closet under the stairs in a decrepit hotel. Anna tells K of her plan to return to her birthplace on a farm in the district of Prince Albert. K agrees to the plan, quits his job, and attempts to secure a permit that will allow them to travel; the permit will not arrive for two months, if at all. As they wait, the war increases in pitch.

After their hotel is ransacked, K and his mother move into the vacant Burhman apartment until fear of discovery overtakes them; K makes one last attempt to determine the status of his permit application to no avail. K and his mother strike out on foot toward the farm, with K pushing his feeble mother in a wheelbarrow, but they are turned back at a checkpoint.

Days later, they set off again by back roads, hoping to avoid surveillance. Anna’s health deteriorates further, and when they arrive in Stellenbosch, a small city east of Cape Town, K admits her to a hospital. After two days in the hospital, Anna dies; K, after wandering the hospital grounds dazed, is given a box containing his mother’s ashes and asked to leave.

K leaves Stellenbosch, heading north toward Paarl. He avoids checkpoints and convoys until he is accosted and robbed by a lone Nationalist soldier. Afterward, he decides his purpose is to bury Anna’s ashes at her birthplace.

On his way through the mountains, K is discovered by police near Worcester and taken into custody. He is herded onto a train and...

(The entire section is 911 words.)