Life and Times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael K Summary and Analysis of Part One, Pages 99-126


K finds a place three hundred yards from the dam where two hills slope into each other and create a crevice. He fetches tools from the shed and hollows out the sides of the crevice. He blocks the narrower end and creates a roof with fenceposts and an iron sheet. He then disguises this cave with river sand and flat stones, puts paste made of mud and dry grass in the cracks, and gravel on the roof. As he works on his shelter, he feels no need to eat, but he does notice he is going more slowly. He considers putting in an eave but decides he needs to make sure this shelter is makeshift and careless so it does not hurt if and when he has to leave it.

As for planting, he knows he cannot irrigate the whole area since the greenness would give him away, so he waters his seeds one by one by taking water from the dam in an old paint tin. He simply has to wait for the seeds to shoot.

His body barely remembers hunger but he forces himself to eat to survive. He assumes he will have pleasure from it when he gets to eat what he’s grown. His body is only muscle and bone now but he feels joy in his physical form. He returns to eating insects as well as roots.

Though his shelter is more than a mile off the track that passed through the farm and then to the road, he is still constantly nervous about someone finding him. When he hears the motors of drones he hides. He is very conscientious about the use of water, never wanting the vanes of the pump to be seen in use or the dam to appear to not be empty.

One night the wild goats he thought were gone return, and he hastily has to protect his garden. He decides to sleep during the day and patrol at night. As time passes his eyes adjust well to the darkness and he loses all fear of the night.

He avoids the farmhouse at all costs unless he has to go there, and does not try to search for the Visagie boy. Even though there are useful things in the farmhouse, he is wary of putting himself on a path “that might lead to the re-enactment of [the Visagies’] misfortunes” (104).

His memory often returns to Huis Norenius, especially when he realizes he is glad he did not have children and does not want them. He sees Huis Norenius as his demanding, cruel father.

One day he sees the front door of the farmhouse ajar and becomes terrified, avoiding it for a week. He knows he is being timorous and chides himself, but his thoughts always return to what would happen if runaway soldiers or off-duty policemen came and made him a servant or used him for shooting practice.

As the days pass, though, his confidence comes back. He watches and watches but all is silence. When he gets up the nerve to investigate, he sees a swept floor and a few cans, as well as smells smoke. He is shaken, and he hides.

Two days pass and as the sun sets, K espies a man on a horse and another man walking beside the first. He hurries to his hole to hide. They come to his area, not noticing him, and settle to make camp—there are eleven of them, and their mounts are donkeys, not horses. K realizes they are men from the mountains, not police officers or soldiers. He hears them laughing and pumping water and roasting meat. Part of him wants to announce himself and tag along with them, but he knows deep down he will not. He must stay and do the gardening; someone has to.

The men clean up and leave the next day. K thinks of going along one more time but does not. He is frustrated to see what the donkeys have done to his garden.

The sounds of a helicopter circling above also startle K, and he worries that the greenness of his garden will attract attention. He is more cautious than ever and does not grow more than he needs to.

The donkeys and the men and the helicopter do not come back, though. K finds pleasure in tending his pumpkins and his melons. There are two small perfect melons that he thinks of as daughters. When the first pumpkin, which he sees as his firstborn, is ready, he prepares it as strips cooking over the coals. It is the best thing he has ever tasted and thankfulness floods him.

Unfortunately, the round pumpkins make the field look odd and K knows he must conceal them better. He tries to pick them early or cover them up.

The days grow shorter and the nights colder. K does not spend a lot of time outside and sleeps more and more. He is a “creature of twilight and night” so much that “daylight hurt his eyes” (115). His senses heighten, particularly those of smell and touch.

As summer ends, K learns to love idleness more and more. He yields himself to time and lets it take him away in its flow. Sometimes he thinks about being called a parasite while at Jakkalsdrif, and wonderers “which was host and which parasite, camp or town. If the worm devoured the sheep, why did the sheep swallow the worm?” (116.) K also thinks of his mother and dreams of showing her this land.

He sleeps even more, and animals start coming back to prey on the field. He begins to experience the taste of blood and a feeling of giddiness when he stands. It is hard to kill birds with his catapult because he is so weak. As the needs of his garden vanish with the season, he loses track of time. He lies in a stupor, sleeping through “whole cycles of the heavens” (118). He dreams of an old man warning him to get off the land. He wonders if he is not fully in possession of himself.

One day he comes out into the daylight, shivering with a cold. He has no strength and can barely walk. He sits down, and that is where they find him.

The men in the vehicles first think he is a vagrant, and ask him questions and try to give him food. When they discover his burrow, though, they believe he has tunnels of operations and that there are many others. A soldier calls for a thorough search, and he is interrogated about his “friends” and punched in the stomach when he says it is only him.

When the men searching the area find the pumpkins they assume there are more supplies stored nearby. K is too weak to answer any questions. They bring him to the farmhouse and give him a place to lie down. They do not disturb him and he drowses uneasily.

The next morning the police arrive, and Captain Oosthuizen recognizes him from the camp, laughing cruelly that he could not forget K’s face. He is taken back to the burrow and interrogated, but eventually, the search starts to wane when nothing is found. K realizes nothing of his presence will be left here, and wonders what it is “that binds me to this spot of earth as if to a home I cannot leave?” (124.)

The soldiers begin readying the land for detonation by land mines. They blow up the farmhouse. After they are done they pack up, hauling the pumpkins into the truck. K is forced to go as well.

K leans into the nearest soldier and says there was a boy living there in the house. The soldier says he is dead now, and the truck moves on toward Prince Albert.


In this last section of the first part of the novel, K lives what is closest to his most idyllic life. He answers to no one; his mother is dead and gone, her ashes disposed of. He is gardening and deriving immense pleasure from working the land. He has a hideout he has constructed that largely serves its purpose. His body begins to shed anything it does not need, and “he felt a deep joy in his physical being” (102). His senses sharpen and shift, and he has the intuition of an animal: “He had no fear of being poisoned, for he seemed to know the difference between a benign bitterness and a malign one, as though he had once been an animal and the knowledge of good and bad plants had not died in his soul” (102). Critic Michael Marais notes that, unlike the state-citizen relationship, K’s relationship with the land is “based on equality.” K is “frequently likened to underground creatures like moles…and earthworms,” which suggests the “fusion of Michael K as subject with the earth as object.” K does not want to dominate the land: he wants to use it gently, sustainably, and meaningfully.

Though there are moments of fear—when he sees that someone has been in the farmhouse, and when the mountain guerillas stop nearby—he largely lives a simple, spare life of joy. When he cooks his first pumpkin, “in mid-act [he] felt his heart suddenly flow over with thankfulness” (113). He sees the melons and the pumpkins as children, as siblings, thus creating the family he never had.

K’s entire experience of time shifts as well. He no longer has to adhere to the state’s regimented schedule—this time to work, this time to bathe, this time to eat, this time to rise—but instead can give himself over to idleness. He has a sense of “yielding himself up to time, a time flowing slowly like oil from horizon to horizon over the face of the world…all that was moving was time, bearing him onward in its flow” (115). Soon he “lost track of time” and “Through whole cycles of the heavens he slept” (118). Erin Mitchell writes, “K’s sense of time sometimes only includes the present tense; his hunger and hibernatory sleep, and the needs of his plants, keep him safe from human time, sheltered from history. Indeed, K is in danger of slipping into what Atwell calls a ‘timeless, iterative present’…of succumbing to the ‘desolate eternal present.’” His time is that of children and animals, “who have neither verb tenses nor the capacity for narration that is heard and understood by, and sustaining to, others.”

As K becomes more and more unmoored, his body begins to fail. Yet the immediate danger isn’t his body or his mental dislocation: it is his capture by the soldiers, who decide he is involved in supplying the mountain guerillas. These men display the same bureaucratic ignorance and arbitrary power as every representative of the state does in this novel, eschewing K’s words and any other contrary evidence embedded in his mode of living to outlandishly conclude that he is an enemy. K is once again being removed from the earth to be sent to an institution, and he rues, “There will not be a grain left bearing my marks” (124). He wonders just what it is about the land that means so much to him—“what is it…that binds me to this spot of earth as if to a home I cannot leave?” (124)—but it is clear to the reader that he is bound to the earth because it is nurturing and can be nurtured: it is sustaining and comforting, and it allows him to live authentically and autonomously.