Life and Times of Michael K

by J. M. Coetzee
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 911

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.

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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 forced to help clear the track of debris they encounter. After the train lets him off in Touwe River, K makes his way to Prince Albert.

In Prince Albert, K locates the farm he believes is the one his mother remembered and finds it deserted. He lives on the farm for a time, indulging in the freshwater there, and scatters his mother’s ashes carefully in the field. He finds pumpkin, bean, and corn seeds at the farm, plants them, and tends his new garden carefully.

As K settles into this life, the grandson of the Visagie family that owns the farm arrives, a military deserter. The grandson assumes K is a hired hand and immediately begins to treat K as a servant. Eventually, he sends K with some money to Prince Albert for supplies; K leaves with the money and heads instead higher into the Swartberg mountains.

K lives for a time in the mountains without food or water until, at the very edge of starvation, K descends to Prince Albert, where he is arrested and taken to jail. He is charged with traveling without documentation, infringing curfew, and being drunk and disorderly and is taken to Jaakalsdrif, a resettlement camp.

In Jaakalsdrif, K is forced to work again; the labor begins to take its toll on his body. After a time, police raid the camp during some kind of riot, ushering in even more inhumane living conditions. As acts of violence and criminal neglect increase, K escapes again.

K returns to the Visagie farm. Finding no sign of the grandson, he sets about replanting and tending his meager crop. Months pass, and K regains his health and confidence until revolutionaries arrive. Most of K’s crops are eaten and destroyed. Despite K’s fears, peace returns to the farm, and some of his fruit grows and ripens. K eats it with great satisfaction and joy.

K continues to live on the farm for a long time and begins to show increasing signs of crippling malnourishment. After a rainstorm forces him to find shelter, he is again discovered by soldiers, who believe him to be aiding revolutionaries. K is taken into custody, and the farmhouse is destroyed.

K is taken to a hospital in Kenilworth, a rehabilitation camp, where a doctor becomes obsessed with the mystery of K as he attempts to help K recover. K refuses to eat hospital food or to reveal anything substantial about himself. Soon after news arrives that Kenilworth is to be turned from a rehabilitation camp into an internment camp, K escapes. The doctor decides not to report K missing and muses at length in his journal about the profound effect K has had on him.

After his escape, K returns to Sea Point and meets wandering vagrants who want to take him in. At nightfall, as K is preparing to sleep, he imagines a life like the one he lived for a time on the Visagie farm. He thinks that he would like to return to it.

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