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.)