Life and Times of Michael K Characters

J. M. Coetzee

The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The strangest (and ultimately most brilliant) feature of this novel is that J. M. Coetzee does not identify the race of his protagonist, Michael K, or of any of his characters, seemingly a highly pertinent fact in a novel about contemporary South Africa. The setting and circumstances of the novel encourage the reader to assume that Michael and Anna K are black, the soldiers and farmers white, the guerrillas black, the doctor white, and so on. At the same time, by pointedly omitting any mention of race, Coetzee presents the reader with an allegory of South Africa without the factor of race. He thereby encourages identification with his protagonist and understanding of his characters’ basic humanity and inhumanity. Stripped of its racist justifications, South Africa is revealed for what it basically is: a cruel police state, a vast bureaucracy of prison keepers and prisoners. Yet Coetzee shows that even in South Africa there are a few kind people left.

Michael K’s Kafkaesque name and character are both consistent with the police-state atmosphere. As a realistic character, Michael is rather dull, an example of minimal man, without personality or social attachments, almost without a will to live. It is only as an allegorical figure, a victim and survivor of the police state, that Michael is interesting. Michael resembles Albert Camus’ alienated stranger, but there is a basic difference: Slow-witted Michael still retains his loyalties, feelings, and...

(The entire section is 405 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Michael K

Michael K, a thirty-one-year-old black South African, homeless, propertyless, deformed by a harelip curled like a snail’s foot, and slow of mind. Brought up at Huis Norenius, a school for poor and abandoned children, Michael K lives a life of solitude and isolation, working as a gardener for the city of Cape Town and eventually taking to the war-ravaged countryside in a continuous and unsuccessful effort to find a sanctuary. A gardener at an abandoned farmhouse in the country, a wanderer in the mountains, a prisoner in relocation or rehabilitation camps, and finally an ailing migrant along the roads and the seashore, Michael K has no money, no papers, no friends, no family, and no place, even among the armies of the homeless and the destitute. Having lived a life in cages, he wishes only to be left alone to plant the pumpkin seeds he carries in a small packet—his sole possession.

Anna K

Anna K, Michael’s mother, formerly a domestic for a retired hosiery manufacturer and his wife living at Sea Point on the Atlantic Ocean. A dying, dropsical woman, Anna K suffers from gross swelling of the arms, legs, and belly. She wishes to leave Cape Town and return to her birthplace at Prince Albert, a considerable distance away, but her son is unable to get the necessary passes or railway tickets from the authorities. They set out together, Michael pushing his mother in a rudely converted wheelbarrow, but she dies en route, at the hospital in Stellenbosch.

Visagie’s grandson

Visagie’s grandson, a pale, plump army deserter. Finding Michael K at his grandfather’s run-down and abandoned farm, Visagie’s grandson assumes that Michael K had been hired to watch over the place. Anemic and weakhearted, the grandson wishes to live hidden away at the farm until the war’s end, and he attempts to transform Michael into...

(The entire section is 776 words.)