Life and Times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael K Summary and Analysis of Part Three


K sits on a bench near the miniature golf course on the Sea Point Esplanade, grateful to be in the sun. He can hear and see people about, though more windows along Beach Road are boarded up than he remembers.

He is naked under the blue overalls and has no shoes, but no one stops him. People will take him for a beggar, he assumes.

He walks over to the flat his mother once lived in and crouches down in the passageway near the door. He chooses not to try the door and there is no movement within or without.

After a few hours and dozing off he goes down to the beach to use the public toilet but it is not working. Three people are approaching: a woman wearing a platinum wig and carrying heeled shoes, and two men. One man tells K his business is finished here and pushes him along. This man waits by the toilet door as the other man and woman go inside.

The man tells K that the woman in the toilet is his sister, and gestures to the water where a woman stands in the surf with a baby. He says she is also his sister.

The two women, the child, and the man converge around K. The man laughs that K is naked. K is about to respond but vomits and closes his eyes. The man assumes he is drunk and laughs, and helps K to his feet.

The group, bringing along K, walk to an empty bus shelter. The man brings out food and gives some to K. They keep walking and head towards the lower slopes of Signal Hill. They enter a hole in the fence marking the boundary of the forest reserve. It is twilight, and the lights below them of Sea Point begin to twinkle.

They make camp under the trees. The man passes wine around and K drinks, feeling dizzy immediately. The man says they are not tramps because they have food and money and make a living.

When K is asked about himself, he says he was at Kenilworth and was once a gardener. He explains that his mother died in Stellenbosch on the way to the country. The world swims and stabilizes. He decides his story is paltry, or maybe it is that he is not a good storyteller.

The man smiles and tells him to get some rest. K sleeps fitfully in the plastic they give him to wrap up in. In the middle of the night, he wakes to the man trying to take the packet of pumpkin seeds from K’s overalls. It is loud and K is embarrassed to have to pretend he does not hear it happening. He stirs, and the man withdraws. K cannot sleep.

At daybreak K rises. He asks the man for his packet but the man is half asleep. K finds the packet and its contents strewn about, and he recovers what he can. He leaves the forest reserve and returns to the beach. There he lies in the sand listening to the ringing in his ears and the blood in his veins. He feels “something inside him had let go or was letting go” (177).

Hours pass without his notice. The man and one of the women come over and the man smiles and asks where he went. He produces some brandy and gives some to K. it gives him a pleasant numbness. K lies down.

The woman comes beside him and begins to fondle him under his overalls. He starts to object, and the man smiles that this is Sea Point and good things happen here. He leaves. The woman gives K a blow job. When it is over he feels like he should say something, but has no words.

The man returns and tells him kindly to get some sleep, and he will be back for him later for the party he promised. Before the man and woman depart, the man leans over and tells K that it is hard to be kind to someone who wants nothing; he needs to not be afraid to say what he wants.

K is alone now. The sun is going down. He is cold and filled with shame. He knows he is sick but there is nothing he can do about it.

He returns to the passageway in front of the door where his mother lived and turns the handle. Inside are various bits of outdoor furniture and décor, stacked up and stored. There is a fine layer of dust. K finds an empty bottle and a smelly blanket, and sits down and wraps himself in the blanket. The ringing in his ears intensifies as he lies down.

Sirens fill the city streets and K cannot sleep. He realizes he has become an object of charity, treated like the children of Jakkalsdrif. Everyone wants him to tell a story of a life lived in cages in order, but he does not want to please them like that. The truth about him, he thinks, is that he is a gardener. Maybe he is an earthworm or a mole, but they are gardeners too.

His thoughts continue. He is glad that he was mute and simple in the beginning and is mute and simple now—the camps have not changed him. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being simple, for they are always the ones targeted. He is out of the camps and that is enough. He escaped that charity and he will escape more.

He decides his main mistake was to plant all his seeds in the same area—he should have spread them out and drawn a map. There would have been time for everything, he now knows.

His thoughts return to the farm and then to who might stay here in this flat. He imagines it is an old man who mutters into his beard and who wants a guide to the roads. K can be that guide and they can set out together. When they pass a blown-up pump and the old man asks how they will get water, K will produce a teaspoon and a length of string from his pocket and lower it down into the shaft deep into the earth, and when he pulls it out there will be water and he will say that is how they will live.


K is back in Sea Point and plans to take up residence in his mother’s old room. His body is still revolting against him, whether it is refusing to keep down food or water or becoming aroused even when he does not want to be. He is still trying to eke out a life of authenticity, whether it is refusing to remain a permanent part of the group of people he meets at the beach, keeping his story to himself and not indulging listeners who want to pity him and consider him a charity case, and claiming for himself the role of “gardener.”

At the end of the novel, what do we make of K and his “resistance?” Is it resistance? Is he a hero? Is he part of history or is he outside of it? Understandably, the complexities of Coetzee’s text preclude a definitive answer; however, critics have grappled with these questions and offered several interpretations. In his article on the novel, David Babcock presents some of these interpretations, beginning with a famous one by South African writer Nadine Gordimer. Gordimer believes that “Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it.” Babcock explains her claim that “Michael K acts, but only in a banal sense, and his actions fail to ‘make history’: they fail to signify any progressive agency for an identifiable racial, national, or human community.”

On the other hand, Babcock notes, critics also find a way to “resuscitate [K] as an individual resisting a dehumanizing collectivity” and his refusal to “make history” becomes “a forceful ethical statement.” And in yet another perspective, Babcock writes that perhaps the novel “resists every attempt by a reader to resolve K into a particular symbolic frame.” John Bolin agrees, focusing his argument on K’s status as an “idiot,” a figure who “retains the power to unsettle and provoke.” Heroism for a figure like K is actually “heroism’s opposite, the strange, private realm of one who does not lead a politically engaged life at all.” It is K’s “particular plight to belong neither to the world of men nor to that of animals,” even though K seeks to affiliate himself with the latter.

Out of Kenilworth, K does not immediately return to his out-of-time-and-history existence. There is an interstitial period in which he joins the man and his “sisters,” the prostitutes, who are essentially squatters. K is in the paternal realm now, Erin Mitchell writes, which is seen in his sexual encounter. He is also encouraged to “inhabit a temporality that is not that of dead time, not that of the iterative eternal present, not that of planting and cultivating…for the first time in the novel, K wills himself into a community, and shares that community’s discourse of temporality.”

Yet he is not content to stay in that community very long. He retreats into his mother’s old room, where he imagines he will encounter the other man who stays there, “a little old man with a stoop and a bottle in his side pocket who muttered all the time into his beard, the kind of old man the police ignored” (183). That old man will want to find someone “who knew the roads” (183), and K will help them survive by figuring out how to get water. He will return to the maternal, to the earth, and leave civilization and its discontents behind.