K meets different people on his way. Some of them are indifferent to the sufferings of others, but there are also those who are ready to help. A man who feeds him and allows him to spend a night under his roof simply says that he believes in helping people. “Do I believe in helping people?” K asks himself. It is not clear if he comes to a conclusion one way or another, which is an authorial choice by Coetzee to make us consider what our responsibilities to others are in the time of great social trauma.
No one is forgotten.
The Medical Officer at the rehabilitation camp in Cape Town is extremely interested in K and his story. He tries to find out how to help him, but he is always discouraged with "Michaels'" reluctance to cooperate. It seems to K that the interest in him is misplaced, inappropriate, and confounding. The Medical Officer tries to explain to K that “no one is forgotten,” but Michael doesn’t believe it. The Officer’s phrase simply irritates Michael; at first, the reader may be inclined to applaud the Medical Officer for these meaningful words, but it does not take long before realizing that they ring hollow: K and others like him are forgotten. Even if their bodies endure, their souls are controlled. They are not who they once were under the state's control. K should most certainly be unwilling to "yield" to the Officer.
I must press through to the end, I must not relent.
"I can't go on!" K gasped to Robert...
In these two quotes from K, we glimpse allusions to the Beckian phrase from The Unnameable that so encapsulates the body and the spirit striving against the void of the modern age: "I can't go on, I'll go on." K is at his limits, whether it is trying to catch a goat so he does not die from starvation (first quote) or making it through a brutal day of physical labor (second quote). He will not give up and abandon himself to death, and the mere act of pressing forward—even by doing something as simple as eating—is a powerful statement.
I don’t care who you are, who your mother is, if you haven’t got a permit you can’t leave the area...
A war or any other military conflict can quickly turn people into soulless beings who have no compassion. Neither desperate pleas of Michael nor the sight of his ill and dying mother can soften the heart of a soldier who refuses to pass them further. He and his colleagues “don’t care who you are, who your mother is,” for they have orders and power to decide the fate of those deemed lesser. The entire issue surrounding the permits is also exemplary of the bureaucratic banality that actually functions as a powerful tool to limit a person's movement and autonomy.
I have escaped the camps; perhaps, if I lie low, I will escape the charity too.
K knows what he looks like and he knows what he sounds like—in short, he knows he is "simple." Yet he will not allow others to take from him his story, nor his sense of self. He does not need charity or pity; he survives much better without it. He does not need anything except the freedom to craft a life of his choosing, and here, at the end of the novel, he is definitively rejecting anyone else's authority to dictate his present and his future.
I am going to treat you like a free man, not a child or an animal.
There is some irony in this statement by the Medical Officer. Yes, it sounds good and the Medical Officer has done some beneficial things for K; however, he most assuredly does not treat K like a free man. He constantly fetishizes him, narrates his story, and labels him as a "stone" or a "stick insect" or a "prodigy." He considers him some unearthly impossibility who should have never been born, as well as a symbol of resistance and meaning because his own life is devoid of both.
"What name did he give you?"
"Michael," said the army officer.
"It's Michaels," said Captain Oosthuizen.
In this simple exchange, we see how the power of the state, in seemingly the banalest way, can strip away a person's identity. K's name is certainly not Michaels, yet Oosthuizen's authority makes it so. That wrong name carries over into Kenilworth, where even K's self-proclaimed champion, the Medical Officer, refers to K as such. K's body is confined within a camp, his name is changed, and his spirit is diminished—all due to the forces of the state, intent on marginalizing parts of the population deemed inferior as they carry out their struggle for power.
He was not a prisoner or a castaway, his life by the dam was not a sentence that he had to serve out.
Unlike what K experiences on the road and in the camps, his life by the dam is all his own. He does not have to follow a schedule (indeed, he upends the traditional experience of time); he does not have to give his body over to others; he does not have to speak (tell his story, solicit pity, solicit charity); he does not have to compromise anything. He isn't trying to engage in heroic resistance, but this is, nonetheless, what his life by the dam is.
"That fire was the excuse they were looking for. Now they are going to do what they always wanted–lock us up and wait for us to die."
Robert, like K, has firsthand experience with the heavy hand of the state. Yet, he has a more insightful and cynical perspective due to his experience and intellect. He knows exactly what he is dealing with: the state does not care about these people; it wishes for them to be out of the way; it will use any excuse, however flimsy, to marginalize or eradicate them. K doesn't quite see it this way at first, but he does come around to this perspective, especially after the fire.
It is like going back to childhood, he thought: it is a nightmare.
K's childhood was obviously less than ideal: his mother was initially antipathetic towards him and then washed her hands of him for a time. At Huis Norenius, he was burdened by rules, cruel boys, and a lack of autonomy. Over time, he began to think of the place as his father, with all of the power dynamics and unyielding sternness the role connotes. By extension, then, institutions run by the paternal state are all linked to Huis Norenius in K's mind. They are all closed-off, freedom-stripping places of deadening uniformity and stifling adherence to socially prescribed rules. It is no wonder K cannot handle being inside Jakkalsdrif.
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.