Michael K is the protagonist of the story; his race is unclear. Although he has a mother, he is raised in an orphanage in Cape Town, South Africa. Due to a cleft lip, he is often mocked and beaten by older children. As soon as he leaves the orphanage, he starts working as a gardener in one of the most popular parks in Cape Town. Michael K is a loving son, who was ready to take his mother to Prince Albert once the civil war starts to break down civilized society. He is apparently slow-witted but is not afraid of struggles and hardship, and he labors diligently to get his mother to her childhood home. Her death on the road is somewhat liberating for him, though, and he commits to surviving in a way that best suits him. He ekes out a living in various places, whether in the mountains, labor gangs, rehabilitation camps, or in the countryside; ultimately, he does not allow anyone to impinge on his freedom. He desires to live a life of his own even if it means physical privation.
Anna K is Michael K’s mother. She is not particularly impressed with her son, given that he has a harelip and seems slow-witted; thus, while he is a boy, she commits him to Huis Norenius, a state-run place for "unfortunate" children. She does not see her son often as he grows up, but she comes to need him when she is old and sick. She works as a domestic servant for the Buhrmanns but starts to flag in her duties once she falls ill. She convinces K to return with her to Prince Albert, where she lived as a girl and remembers as a wonderful place. On the way there, she dies. K struggles with his memories of her, as she was often a burden to him and could be cruel and demanding.
Robert is K’s acquaintance at the rehabilitation camp. He has a family and is happy to have decent accommodations for them, but he is bitter that he lost his job farming and was turned in to the police by the landowner he worked for. He helps K open his eyes and understand what is really going on in Prince Albert and the camps at large.
Oosthuizen is the Captain of the police in Prince Albert. He proves to be cruel and sadistic, and he seems to enjoy abusing his power.
The Visagie boy
The Visagie boy is a grandson of the owners of the farm where Michael K hides. Being a deserter, he can’t go to Prince Albert freely, so he tries to make Michael run his errands. When Michael runs away, the Visagie boy most likely stays at the property, but he is presumably killed when the soldiers blow up the house in which he hides.
The Medical Officer
The Medical Officer is a doctor at the rehabilitation camp in Cape Town. He is genuinely interested in Michaels, finding him enigmatic, improbable, and frustrating. He tries to help Michaels by getting him to eat, but he comes to see that Michaels does not belong in this camp and is not going to acquiesce. He also recognizes that Michaels is no insurgent, and he helps to keep him safe by making up a report about his "doings" and then covering up his escape by saying he died. When Michaels leaves the camp, the Medical Officer wishes he could go as well, as he is weary of Kenilworth, the war, and his unsatisfying life.
The Buhrmanns (a retired hosiery manufacturer and his wife) were employers of Anna K, and though they were reputable, wealthy Cape Towners, they always treated Anna fairly and kindly. They allow her to live in a room of her own in the block, even when she falls ill. During the unrest in the city, they leave and do not return.
Noel van Rensburg
Noel is a Major and the head of Kenilworth; he is sixty. Though he is committed to doing his job of rehabilitating the inmates, he demonstrates compassion and flexibility, especially when it comes to Michaels. He does not think he is "iron" enough to run the camp as he is supposed to, and thinks about resigning so he can go live with his widowed daughter.
One of the employees at Kenilworth. She is efficient and seemingly content working in the camp, though the Medical Officer admits he does not know her too well and wonders if he underestimates her.
The Tall Man
A man whom K meets at the beach along with his "sisters." He is jovial and roguish, and he encourages K to drink and engage in sexual activities with one of the women. He invites K to stay with them in their makeshift camp in the forest reserve, and he robs K of his pumpkin seeds at night.
A prostitute whom K meets, along with her "sister" and "brother" at the Sea Point beach. She performs fellatio on K; he is ashamed but does not resist.
Life and Times of Michael K Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Life and Times of Michael K is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.