When Michael K is born to his mother, Anna K, his harelip is immediately noticeable. The nurse assures her it will close, but it doesn’t. She keeps her son away from other kids with their mean whispers.
Anna K works as a domestic servant for a retired hosiery manufacturer and his wife in Sea Point, South Africa. She has a room of her own, works six days a week, and gets reasonable pay from her kind employers. However, she soon becomes ill and has to cut down her hours, only keeping her room due to the Buhrmanns’ charity.
Due to K’s disfigurement and the fact that his mind is not quick, Anna pulls him out of school and puts him in Huis Norenius, a state-run place for “unfortunate” children. There they do chores and learn skills. He ages out when he is fifteen and joins Parks and Gardens in Cape Town. Three years later he leaves, works for the public lavatories as a night attendant, then returns to Parks and Gardens after a cruel beating one night. He rises to Gardener, grade 1.
K has no women friends. He likes being alone, especially among the gardens. One day, though, when he is 31, he receives a message from his mother saying she has been discharged from the hospital and needs him to come and fetch her. She has been suffering from swelling of the limbs for months; her body torments her and she has to be treated in numerous ways.
K brings her home from the hospital and sees to her comfort as much as he can. He does not like it when the buses do not run and he has to stay there, shivering on the chair in her dank flat. His mother’s swollen legs bother him. Yet he does not shirk his duties, and he feels certain he has been brought into the world to look after his mother.
Anna is increasingly worried about what will happen if she loses her room; she knows how “indifferent the world could be to an old woman with an unsightly illness in time of war” (7). She ruminates on the quiet countryside of her youth, and one day when K comes home saying Parks and Gardens is doing layoffs, wonders if they might return there. She is from Prince Albert, and her years there before moving to Oudtshoorn were the best of her life. She moved to Cape Town after the birth of her first child. Two more died, then there was Michael. Anna dreams of escaping the violence and packed buses and cold and curfew.
She tells K he ought to quit before he gets laid off, and they could travel by train to Prince Albert where she would get a room and he could look for work on a farm. K does not doubt her plan, and the next day he does not go to work but instead goes to the railway station and the main-line booking office. The earliest reservation he can get is August eighteenth, two months away, but he will need a permit from the police. Due to his mother’s health, he had wanted to leave sooner, but there are no exceptions. He then waits two hours to get forms.
Back in the room, it is cold and smelly. There is no bread or milk in town. K goes to Parks and Gardens and is told he was to be paid out after the month ended. He says he was already planning on leaving.
K and Anna wait and wait for the permits, which do not come. One day K takes a wheelbarrow and tools from the gardeners’ shed and constructs a ride for his mother. He takes her out into the fresh air but it is cumbersome, as she is heavy and the barrow is unstable.
Cape Town becomes increasingly unstable. A military jeep strikes a youth crossing the road and riots and shooting break out. K and Anna cower in their silent flat while the neighborhood rages. They worry the real war has finally come to Sea Point.
Residents begin to emerge finally and clean up. K heads to St Joseph’s Mission for soup and a bed, but the place is ravaged and silent. Every day K rubs shoulders with “the army of the homeless and destitute who in the last years had taken over the streets of the central district, begging or thieving or waiting in lines at the relief agencies or simply sitting in the corridors of public buildings to keep warm” (13). There is no work, no accommodations. K does not know what to do.
Their hopes hinge on the permits, but they do not show up in the Buhrmanns’ mailbox. The couple themselves had fled, leaving no word. Anna gives K the key to venture up to the flat’s mailbox. K has never been up there before. Everything is in chaos, sodden and broken.
K brings Anna up, the first time in two months for her. She whispers her shock and confusion, and he takes her back downstairs. K cleans as best he can and decides to stay for a night or two up there so they can each have their privacy.
It rains every day. No word from the Buhrmanns comes. K reads magazines he finds and listens to a transistor radio. One day he goes to the hostel where he’d been living, pays the back rent, gathers his things, and says he is leaving.
One morning four men open the door and enter the flat, cleaning out all of its contents without a word. Anna cannot understand why no one has told her anything. K listens to her fretting for a time, then goes outside to work on the barrow. He makes a better version that can hold his mother’s weight. They test it out in the evening, and it brings a smile to her face.
K realizes that the permits will never come and it is a waste of time to wait for them, meaning that they cannot take the train. Perhaps he can push his mother in the cart; the important thing is to get out of the damp weather in Sea Point. He argues with her for hours, her fears centering on the police stopping them. Finally, she agrees to go if he checks one more time for the permits.
K is excited, and he goes the next day to the train station to ask about the permits. The policewoman is irritated with him, telling him that if he applied, a permit will come. She ignores him, and he eventually leaves.
An hour before dawn the next day K readies his mother in the cart. He rigs a canopy and gives her a blanket, food, the paraffin stove, fuel, and a few odds and ends of clothing. They move out into the street and start their journey, moving past empty, burned-out warehouses. There are other strange conveyances out on the road, and no one stops them.
K’s arms hurt but he keeps smiling. They roll past the ghostly industrial quarter. K hopes to make it to the open road so they can get a ride. He hears a thunderous rumbling and sees uniformed motorcyclists and an armored car with a gunner. Scores more vehicles drive past.
At a checkpoint, K and Anna are turned back because they do not have their permits, and no remonstrating will change the official’s mind. They have to return to their flat, and K tells his mother they will try again and use the back roads.
Two days later they set out again and K follows a new route through the center of the city, out through a suburban road, over a bridge, and to a quieter road. They get one lift, but that is all. There are pedestrians aplenty along the cement works but few vehicles. In the evening they push into the Port Jackson scrub to find a place to sleep, but it is no better sheltered than anywhere else. That night it is cold and rainy, and whereas Anna had been complaining the entire time, she is now silent.
The next day they are back on the road. Two men approach with a knife and K, refusing to be humiliated again, brings out his own weapon and threatens the men. They back off and eventually disappear.
There are many people on the road. Three children scamper about and talk to Anna. Another convoy passes but they are not stopped. They make it to Stellenbosch’s empty, freezing streets. Anna’s coughing is worse and worse, and she keeps thinking they will be at Prince Albert soon. K does not want to disillusion her.
As time passes, Anna grows feverish and her head lolls. K decides to take her to the hospital, where she is taken away. He stashes his barrow and checks on his mother. Once he accosts a nurse for help and she hisses at him that there are too many people that need help and she is too tired to do it all.
K loiters about, waiting. He visits his mother, who now has a tube down her nose. He asks the hospital if there is anything for him to do to keep busy but there is nothing for him. Finally, he learns one morning that his mother has died. The doctor tells him they wanted to contact him but did not have a number.
K is in shock and sips the tea someone gives him. He does not know what to say. He answers some questions about his mother, but he stops talking to the man sent over to him. He does not know where to go, but he is not told to leave.
On the second day, a nurse comes to K with his mother’s ashes and a small bag of a few things for him, such as clothes and toiletries. He cannot help but imagine old women being burned in the oven. He asks the nurse vehemently, “How do I know?” (32) but she is confused and does not answer.
K leaves the hospital and inspects the clothing. He throws away the toiletries. It is hard to leave the hospital but he gets his cart and begins moving about the city. He begs for work but grows tired of people’s derisive faces. He falls in with men and women who sleep under the railway bridge and hang out in the lot behind the liquor shop.
K chooses not to observe curfew anymore, caring little and knowing no one will come for him. He feels weak and sick but does not miss his mother any more than he had missed her when she was alive. He sleeps more and more.
One day the cart vanishes but K still has his suitcase. He moves back out to the road, where he gets a brief ride from an old man. When there are convoys passing, he makes sure to raise his hands and not hide, like all the others are doing.
There is a convoy that has stopped because of a crash, and K makes to go around it. A soldier stops him and starts interrogating him about his suitcase. He asks K where he got money, which he pockets, and begins rifling through all the items. He derisively gives K a tiny bit of money back for “ice cream” and sends him along his way.
K decides he does not need the suitcase anymore, and he deposits it and everything but a coat and the ashes in the bushes. He continues along, the road empty, and spends the night high above the Elandsrivier. He avoids the road bridge the next day.
K finds a bungalow in the corner of an overgrown field. It is wrecked but the roof is intact and he makes a bed. The rain does not cease and he is starved. He notices rotting fruit and tries to bite some of the good parts. Moving deeper into the orchard, he espies a whitewashed farmhouse that has clearly been neglected. He wants to approach, but he is worried someone is in there and will shoot him.
The next day he returns to the road, always creeping away from convoys. He wonders what they’d think of him with his ragged, filthy clothes and gaunt cheeks—just another vagrant too ignorant to know one needed papers on the road.
Eventually, he joins with many people on the road making their way to Worcester. A roadblock looms up and when it is K’s turn he shows his green card, saying he is going to Prince Albert but lost his permit. Unimpressed, a policeman grabs him and pushes him forward, and he finds himself suddenly in captivity. In the railway yards, he is shoved into a carriage with other downtrodden people. He asks an older man what is happening and the man says it does not matter where they are being taken; there is only up the line and down the line. He does finally add that they are going north to Touws River.
The train makes its way mile after mile until it encounters a roadblock of rocks and red clay that had slid off the mountainside. All of the men on the train are assigned to clear the debris, shoveling the clay and stones. K feels pain in his body and a buzzing in his brain, and the overseer prods him up. The men toil away and finally rest late that night. K finds himself near the old man from earlier, who tells him not to be so miserable since this is not jail, just a labor gang. He then gestures to everyone, grimly saying no one is special.
By noon the next day, a passage is opened and the regular repair crew comes in the re-lay the track. The men are put back in the train car and dropped off at Touws River. K has no idea what will happen next, so he flees the area as soon as he can.
He finds a little shop but the old woman inside will not let him in even though he waves money. In the morning it is open, though, and K buys a few items from a man. He trudges steadily along the road all day. There is no place to hide in this flat landscape. He sleeps in a veld one night but is warned away by a stranger, who says he could be shot for doing that.
The journey through the country is pleasing to K. He feels less anxious than his time on the road, and thinks he would be fine with doing this every day. He understands why people retreat to the countryside.
He comes to the area outside Laingsburg, where he passes filling stations and shops and railways. It grows dark and dogs bark. A stranger offers him a place to stay for the evening, saying people ought to help people. K privately wonders if he helps people, deciding he might or he might not, but it is hard to tell. He is immensely grateful to the family, though, and tells them about his mother and shows one of the boys her ashes.
K resumes his journey. Once, a farmer in a truck tells him he will give him a ride, but something seems off and K declines.
Finally, he comes to the hills above Prince Albert and begins descending toward the town. He can hear a man’s voice intoning a monologue in a language he does not understand. K enters the town from the south road and observes the various shops. He sits in front of the general store, which is not open, and he dozes off. When the man comes to open the shop, he tries to remember the “V” name that his mother mentioned. The man suggests the Visagies and asks why K wants to know. He replies that he has to take them something, and the man tells him the place has been empty for years.
K leaves, a bit confused, but a child stops him and tells him he can give him directions to the Visagie place. K gives him money for sweets and follows the boy’s directions. He walks along a track, climbs down a crest, and sees a white farmhouse with land rising behind it to foothills and then mountains. He approaches, seeing closed shutters and a crumbled gable. There is a pump with the head missing and another a ways off.
He sees a wood and iron shed and breaks the lock. Swallows fly out, startled. There is a dusty harrow covered with cobwebs, and many tools and empty cartons. He finds feedbags and makes a bed for himself on the stoop. He thinks about how he has money but no use for it. He is glad to be here, but, not knowing where “here” really is, thinks that he is just glad to be somewhere.
This spare, deceptively simple tale is somewhat of a curiosity in Coetzee’s oeuvre—or, at least, Michael K, the central character, is. There is a lot the reader does not really know about “K,” as he is succinctly referred to. Is he white or “colored,” according to apartheid terminology? How mentally incapacitated is he? What is the third-person omniscient narrative actually leaving out? There are certain facts to grab hold of—K never knew his father; his mother sent him to a state institution for his childhood; he likes gardening; his mother is sick and wants to go to Prince Albert, where she says she was raised; the two of them do go on the road; his mother dies, and K is then left on his own. In between and around these facts, though, are ambiguity, slippage, and fungibility of time and space, all of which seek to disorient the reader’s sense of connection to and understanding of the titular character.
Coetzee sets his novel amid a fictitious civil war in apartheid-era South Africa. Though K does not comment on this war in any other way than a simple acknowledgment of what is literally going on, it is clear that society is in tumult. There are curfews, beggars and vagrants roaming the streets, riots breaking out, resettlement camps, and convoys roaming the roads. Soldiers and police are imbued with banal but oppressive power over every aspect of citizens’ lives. Those who do not follow the rules are punished, even though those “rules” are arbitrary. The cause of this civil war is never made clear, but it has a universal resonance. K asks unironically of a soldier if the war is just to steal people’s money, the Medical Officer wonders it is really about bringing happiness to people, and Noel volunteers that it is “so that minorities will have a say in their destinies” (157).
Regardless of why this war exists, it does exist, and Anna K, grown old and sick and a burden to her employers (she astutely thinks “how indifferent the world could be to an old woman with an unsightly illness in time of war” ), decides she would be happier returning to the Eden of her childhood. We do not know exactly how happy that childhood was because this is not truly her story, but K, as a dutiful son, agrees to take her there. They are unable to get out of the tangled web of bureaucracy and get the permits they need to legally travel on the road, but K decides they will make the journey anyway.
The indignities of life on the road during a civil war pile up on each other—without permits, Anna and K are sent back to Sea Point and have to try again; thugs menace them; they have to endure bad weather and sleeping in inhospitable places. Anna’s body fails, and she dies in a hospital. There, she is cremated without permission, and K is bothered by probing questions from an ambiguous authority figure. Though he is traumatized by the vision of his mother’s body (and the bodies of other old women) going into the fire for cremation, he is largely liberated by Anna’s death. For someone who assumed “he had been brought into the world to look after his mother” (7), this is a major shift.
K’s encounters with the state are similar to other relationships in the novel, as critic Michael Marais notes, and overall in the novel, “instead of being static, the power relations in the novel are in a constant state of flux.” When K is born, Anna is repulsed and comes to see him as a burden, but, eventually, he is “preyed upon and burdened by his mother, originally the host.” This is similar to the situation with the state, in which K is seen by many as a parasite and a burden but will eventually come to be seen as the host on which the state-parasite feeds. The state is also identified with the father and the masculine. K sees the state-run institution of Huis Norenius as his father: “my father was Huis Norenius. My father was the list of rules on the door of the dormitory, the twenty-one rules…” (104-105). When he goes to Jakkalsdrif, he imagines he is back in Huis Norenius.