Life and Times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael K Summary and Analysis of Part One, Pages 52-99


When K awakes the next morning he discovers there are wild goats running about and decides he has to catch one in order to survive. It is not at all easy, and they lead him in circles and wear him out. Finally, he is able to jump on one and drown it, but his whole self revolts at this.

He wanders around the farmhouse and finally decides to go in, breaking a window pane. He finds a small pantry with a few goods in it. He does not want to cut up the goat, but he has no choice. He drags its heavy corpse back to the farmhouse and begins his butchering, something he has never done before. It is nauseating, but he cooks it and eats it without pleasure. He wonders what will happen when it is gone.

K feels certain he has a cold, as he feels dizzy and feverish. He drags his bed of sacks into the front room and collapses into sleep. In the morning he wonders if his mother, now here, feels a sense of relief. For the next two days, he abandons himself to his sickness and finally begins to recover.

He sets out to explore the single-roomed cottages behind the farmhouse and notices a small patch where he wonders if his mother was born. He considers putting the ashes there but it does not seem right.

Each night K sleeps in the house though he is not entirely sure that is appropriate. During the days he is at the dam, washing his clothes and wading in the water and dozing under trees. he finally decides to bury his mother’s ashes, but even though he digs a hole it does not feel right so he scatters them over a patch of land near the dam and turns the earth over many times with a spade.

This begins his life as a cultivator. In the shed are packets of pumpkin seeds, and he has mealie kernels and one bean. He clears the land and restores the furrows and plants the seeds.

As for food, he lives off birds he kills with a catapult. His days are spent in this form of hunting and doing his gardening. He sees “his waking life bound tightly to the patch of earth he had begun to cultivate” (59).

The sun’s rising and setting order his day; thoughts of Cape Town and the war slip away. He vacillates between exultation at this strange life and a sense of pain.

One day he returns from the dam and sees a strange man in the house. The man asks if he works here, and K nods. The young man says he is Visagie’s grandson, and it turns out he is a deserter and remembered this place from his childhood and came here seeking solace. K barely listens to him talk, feeling stupid for thinking he could be here and that this was “one of those islands without an owner” (61).

The grandson talks on and on about his excuses for deserting, and how he will hide here. He asks for a saw and starts giving K suggestions about what to eat and where to grow food. K does not want to betray his garden. The grandson complains that there is nothing to eat and asks how much his grandparents pay him. K is sullen, knowing this man thinks he is an idiot. The grandson asks about the goats and K says they are too wild and cannot be caught. He finally offers to get the man something to eat, grabbing his catapult.

He shoots four birds and speaks cryptically about not getting dirty. The grandson is annoyed with him and yells that he will take care of them. While he is doing so, K visits his garden and laments that he will have to abandon it.

When he returns the grandson placatingly tells him they have to work together; all of this is smothering and repulsive to K. He feels stupidity creeping over him. The grandson informs him he’d like him to go to Prince Albert and buy him a list of things. He will give him money. K nods. The grandson continues that he has to live here quietly as the war goes on, and he just wants to keep out of sight for a while. His plaintiveness annoys K.

K leaves the farm. He buries the money in a tin under a stone at the front gate. He then cuts across country, avoids all habitation, and walks high into the hills. He finds a cave that had been used before by sleepers and settles in. The sense that he was about to be a servant for the grandson of the Visagie is already fading. He cannot help but think of his pumpkins, though, and how they will die.

The day is an idle one and a cold one. K is hungry but does not eat; he tries to be calm and listen to the silence. He moves to a different, higher-up, warmer cave. All there is to do, he decides, is to live. It is extremely quiet; only the sound of scurrying insects reaches him. There is no one to tell him what to do. His mind wanders to his days working at Wynberg Park. There the land was green and fertile and moist, but now he knows he prefers dark, hard, and yellowish reddish earth. This makes him think he is becoming a different man.

As the days pass, he merely survives. He eats to live, does not make his cave like a home, and sits in a stupor. He wonders if this is bliss, but his thirst pains him. He remembers times of hunger at Huis Norenius and how things were better when he was a big boy, not a little one.

His body begins to revolt. His head is dizzy and he cannot keep anything, even water, down. He knows he might die if he does not leave, so he painfully creeps down the mountain back into Prince Albert. There is no one in the streets, and he crumples into a feverish ball to sleep.

A policeman wakes him with a flashlight and he is thrown into a cell. He cannot stand well, and the authorities assume he is drunk. He has no green card and no one knows who he is or where he came from.

K is taken to the hospital and treated. He finally starts to feel better, but he often notices a policeman standing with the nurse. Once an orderly tells him to eat up now since the “great hunger” is only to come (72). K does not know what this means.

When his time is done in the hospital, he is given clothes that are not his and driven not to the police station but rather to a camp in the bare veld called Jakkalsdrif. He assumes it is one of the resettlement camps, and when he steps out of the vehicle he sees about one hundred inmates looking at him curiously.

There are a few men in Free Corps uniforms and one shows K to a bunk that he says will be his home now and he must keep clean. K lies in his bunk all day and listens to the sounds of the camp. One man comes in and asks if he is okay and K replies yes. He thinks that he should have had warning that he was going to be back around people.

He ventures outside and asks if there is anywhere to wash his clothes. A woman points him to a washhouse. He observes a posted sign with bath times for men and women.

The camp becomes more alive as the sun sets. There are old people and children and adults. K wonders why he was sent here and how long he has to stay. A van comes in the gates and two women begin serving soup. K wants some but is told it is for the children. He asks a guard where he gets food and the man rudely tells him he has to work to get food. He says he cannot work if he is locked up, and the man curses him away. K thinks it was better on the road and even in Cape Town; this is like going back to childhood and it is a nightmare.

Before the women leave, though, they give K the soup pot and say he can have the soup mush at the bottom if he washes it. They leave and the people in the camp eat, start fires, and someone plays a guitar.

An old man comes over and offers K a cigarette. When K points out that the fence is low and even children could climb it, the man scoffs that this is not a prison—it’s a camp for people without jobs, for people who beg. This is better than anywhere else because there are jobs, food, and men with guns guarding it. This place is home now, and if someone leaves and is picked up again they go to Brandvlei, which has “penal servitude, hard labour, brickfields, guards with whips” (78). The man slaps his back and tells him to have a drink with them.

K grudgingly agrees and sits by the fore. He answers some questions about where he came from but he cannot bring himself to mention the ashes. One man named Robert says he and his wife and their children have been here for five months. He’d been a farmer for twelve years before the wool market dried up and the farmer he worked for had to let him go. That farmer then called the police to pick him up. Astonished, Robert protested this but the police shrugged and said he did not want to be picked up for being a nuisance. Robert tells K that he knows farmers don’t want people escaping into the mountains and then coming back and cutting their fences and driving their stock away. He sighs. K points out a shooting star.

The next day, K goes out to work clearing undergrowth in a riverbed around a bridge. Robert cautions him not to wear himself out too much, and remember what they pay him. it is tough work but he will get paid, and the only place to spend it is Prince Albert. However, the locals don’t want a camp near them, so when camp people visit, shops raise their prices. Robert confides that the people who do like the camps are the Railways and farmers. K looks at the gang foreman and wonders what he thinks of him. On Saturday they are paid. On Sunday a pastor comes, and then everyone can go to Prince Albert. Robert does not go but K does. He takes a nap outside.

When the ladies from Vrouevereniging come with the soup for the children, they always let K clean the soup-bucket, probably because they think he is simple. He keeps half his own wages and gives the rest to Robert and his family.

One day he does not want to go to work and stays back at camp and plays with the children. He asks the guard if he can go out and the guard says no and he will shoot him if he tries. K is confused, saying he chose not to work and he thought that was okay. The man sighs that if he lets him out he’ll be back in three days begging to come in. He doesn’t know why K would want to run away if he has food and work and a bed. K simply says he does not want to be in a camp.

The next day he chats more with the guard, who is actually quite friendly. They talk about football, and the guard tells him about the women in the camp wanting sex from the guards.

The next day Robert shakes him awake and says they are all being forced to work. They are taken to a sprawling farm and given sickles. The work is unbearably hard for K, who feels like he cannot do it. Robert tells him the man who owns this farm is the brother-in-law of the captain of the police, and thus he gets to call in this free labor to take care of his own farm.

That night K is miserable, his whole body in pain. A baby starts crying and his rage mounts. The next day Robert tells him that brandy is the only way they got the baby to stop crying. He confides to K that when the camp first opened everyone got extremely sick and when a nurse came to see what was going on she began crying. The camp had to take basic hygiene measures after that, but Robert says they don’t care about the residents; “They prefer it that we live because we look too terrible when we get sick and die” (88). K is a bit unsure about all this, but Robert scoffs that he is a baby and needs to wake up from this sleep he’s been in his whole life.

Two days later the crying baby is dead. Its eighteen-year-old mother is solemn and rejects people’s attempts to comfort her. K watches from afar, intrigued by her. He wonders if he will be last in love, and never speaks to her.

One night there is tumult in the camp and those stumbling out of their bunks see a fire on the horizon, guessing it is the police station. The police strike at dawn, coming in with dogs and guns. They pull down tents and beat the people struggling to get out from under them. Women and men and children are herded into the open with all their things; it looks like a trash heap.

K comforts two small girls and closes his eyes to the viciousness of the police response. The people are then made to file out, leaving behind everything. The police lock the gates and the camp is empty. Captain Oosthuizen orders the disheveled guards pulled out as well, and asks who is missing. He addresses everyone furiously, calling them criminals and lazy, worthless people who are ungrateful. He screams he will put his own men on guard and not the Army, and anyone who steps outside the camp will be shot. There will be no visits and no outings; instead, there will be roll-calls every morning and evening. His wrath extends to the guards as he furiously curses their nightly visits with the women, and throws their refrigerator of food to the ground.

The policemen search through the debris while the people wait in the now-risen sun. They learn that there was a fire after an explosion at the welding shop, which spread to the museum. Someone said they saw strange men, and the town decided it must have been the camp.

When the people are let back in, they scramble to find their possessions. It does not take K long because he does not have much. Food does not come and people begin to think they will be starved. K realizes the isolated location of the camp means something, but has a hard time believing the police guards truly don’t see them as real, living bodies.

Work resumes and one day K is repairing fences. A man tells him he should go into fencing because he has a feel for wiring.

In the night a fight breaks out at the camp and the guard K once talked to is stabbed. K raises his voice for the first time, drawing attention, and says the man needs to be taken to the hospital. The other Free Corps man binds his companion’s leg.

K does not find out who stabbed the guard because he decides this is his last night at the camp. He slips out silently and walks away, feeling a thrill at being free. When the sun rises he gets out of open country. The landscape is empty and quiet, but every so often a fence reminds him this land belongs to someone and he is a trespasser.

He returns to the Visagie house. There is no sign of the grandson. He walks down to the dam, where he feels at home, though it is dry. He pumps water, which begins to gush. It is all like it was before. K sleeps, and awakes tired and sore, but looks forward to planting and cultivating again.


K continues to vacillate between being on his own and being subject to state control. He finishes working on a labor gang to make it to the Visagie farm, but after a time there, he has to leave because the Visagie grandson seemingly wants to turn K into a servant of sorts. He escapes to the mountains but when he comes down, he is put into a hospital. After that, he is sent to Jakkalsdrif, a resettlement camp. There, K grapples with the larger question of who such people placed into those camps are to those who are in charge, and though he might not have conclusively figured it out by the time he leaves, he does indeed exercise his free will and leave. Back at the Visagie farm, he will embark on his most extended period of survival according to his own desires and rules, but that too, of course, will come to an end.

The closest K has to a mentor or friend is Robert, a man in the camp. Robert tries to get K to understand what is going on, explaining why people are sent to the camp, why people in Prince Albert hate it but representatives of the state love it, and the sheer disregard for human life evinced by the state when the camp was first opened. He scoffs at K’s ignorance, telling him he’s a “baby” and admonishing him, “You’ve been asleep all your life. it’s time to wake up” (88). Robert helps K see that Jakkalsdrif is, as critic David Babcock writes, an example of “the interweaving of the security state and the welfare state.” Here, those men and women who would otherwise be out on the street, begging or roaming, are given food, a bed, and work. it is welfare, yes, but it also serves the purpose of the state in several ways: first, it removes the unsightly, undesirable citizens from the view of the wealthy and powerful, and second, it provides a ready cheap labor force. The camp “provides for [the inmates’] animal needs en masse so that their labor can be more efficiently used.” Human beings’ value is only that of “their ability to provide value to an economy.”

In terms of human beings’ bodies, they are only valuable for their labor and are otherwise meant to be out of sight. Babcock notes, “Bodies pose a problem for the state because they can make ethical demands on those who see them; therefore, the state acts to limit their visibility.” Robert tells K, “What they would really like—this is my opinion—is for the campo to be miles away in the middle of the Koup out of sight. Then we could come on tiptoe in the middle of the night like fairies and do their work, dig their gardens, wash their pots, and be gone in the morning leaving everything nice and clean” (82). After the police raid on the camp, K comes to terms with the fact that “it no longer seemed an accident that the camp lay out of sight of the town on a road that led nowhere else” (94), yet his mind still revolts at the fact that the people in the camp are still bodies—how can the men guarding the camp not see that? Even if they die, their bodies are still there and must be accounted for, so why not let them live?

Coetzee considers bodies abstractly as well, associating certain aspects of K’s world as either feminine or masculine, the Mother or the Father. Critic Erin Mitchell notes that the binary opposites of camp and garden, for example, are a way for Coetzee to “figure institutions and camps, violence and war, law, and the social as they are corrupted by power relations, as masculine. K’s resistances to that power can then be figured as an alignment with the nurturant, gardening feminine.” K has absolutely no desire to be part of anything that smacks of the Father. Not only does he have no father in his life, but he says that his Father is Huis Norenius. He also thinks to himself, “How fortunate that I have no children…how fortunate that I have no desire to father” (104).

Instead, K identifies himself with the feminine and maternal. When in Jakkalsdrif, he is ostensibly classified with them. When he gardens on the Visagie farm, he “listens to and follows the imperatives of his drives and his body,” “isolates himself with his plant-children,” eschewing the structures and rules of a masculine, ordered society. K’s “work under the moon, his night-time concern for his plants, not only aligns him with the feminine, but also shows that he already inverts the usual human sense that the daylight is made for working, the night-time for sleeping.”