Life and Times of Michael K Summary
by J. M. Coetzee

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Life and Times of Michael K Summary

(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 insensitive bureaucracy keeps delaying their travel permits. Finally, they decide to leave on foot without permits, with Michael hauling his sick mother and her suit case in a makeshift cart. During several days on the road, they meet other refugees, convoys of soldiers, and thieves, but the elements prove most baneful for Anna. She makes it only as far as Stellenbosch, where she dies in a hospital (another strangely insensitive institution). Michael proceeds alone to Prince Albert, being robbed of his mother’s savings by a soldier and impressed into a temporary work gang along the way. Eventually, he reaches the now-deserted Visagies farm, where his mother once lived, and scatters her ashes.

With nowhere else to go, Michael stays on at the farm, planting corn and pumpkins and killing birds to eat. His quiet life there is interrupted, however, by the appearance of the Visagies’ grandson, an army deserter. The grandson sends Michael into Prince Albert for supplies; instead, Michael flees into the mountains. There, he stays until he almost starves. When he comes down out of the mountains, Michael is picked up by soldiers and interned in Jakkalsdrif, a “resettlement” camp for homeless people (actually a guarded concentration camp and source of cheap labor for the railroad and nearby farmers). Only the children are fed; the adults have to work for their food. After a while, Michael escapes and returns to the Visagies farm. The grandson is either hiding or has disappeared, so Michael settles down in a nearby camouflaged den and grows a garden of melons and pumpkins. Once, a guerrilla group passes by without seeing him, but he is eventually discovered just before he almost starves again by soldiers, who return him to a Cape Town “retraining” camp, where he is hospitalized for malnutrition.

The guerrillas and soldiers, and Michael’s return to Cape Town, are signs that the South African perimeter is shrinking. News filtering into the retraining camp of railroad lines cut off and shipments of retrainees delayed confirm this impression. The retraining camp scenes, forming a brief part 2 of the novel, are narrated from the first-person point of view of the camp doctor, who worries...

(The entire section is 1,635 words.)