Life and Times of Michael K

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


The narrator, a Medical Officer, says a new patient has come in—an old, emaciated man who shows prolonged malnutrition. Apparently he was picked up in Karoo and was growing food for the guerilla operation there.


The Medical Officer admits he has been struggling with the new patient, “Michaels.” Michaels says he is not hungry. He is also only 32, though he looks much older. He seems to not be part of this world; he often says oblique, enigmatic things. He has been locked up as an insurgent but barely seems to know the war is going on.


The Medical Officer talks to Noel, the head of the rehabilitation camp. He tells Noel that Michaels is feeble-minded and should be somewhere making crafts, not in a rehab camp. Noel consults the file, which says Michaels is an arsonist and an escapee, as well as ran a garden on an abandoned farm and fed the local guerillas. The Medical Officer shakes his head, saying that this seems impossible.


He asks Michaels why he does not eat, and Michaels replies he was woken while sleeping and does not need to eat then.


Noel is putting pressure on the Medical Officer for faster patient turnaround, but this is not possible. Even if Noel’s responsibility is to his program, the Medical Officer's responsibility is to his patients. Noel pats him on the shoulder and says he is doing fine. The Medical Officer wonders if they are soft, and Noel sighs that maybe they are.


Felicity takes Michaels outside fresh air. He says he is happy there Is no radio here, that it made him fidget and wouldn’t let him think his own thoughts. The Medical Officer asks what those thoughts were. Michaels replies that they were thoughts of flying.

The Medical Officer moves his bed away from the boy with the broken ankle who dislikes him. He thinks that Michaels needs diet and exercise and physiotherapy so one day he can rejoin camp life and march and shout and dig holes and fill them again.


The Medical Officer wonders if anyone believes in what they are doing here. They have an old racetrack and barbed wire and are supposed to effect a change in men’s souls. They are not “experts on the soul but assuming cautiously that it has some connection with the body” (134) so they have the captives exercise and watch videos about getting rid of mosquitoes, then send them to labor battalions to carry water and dig latrines.


There are twelve patients now. Michaels makes no progress. He smiles up at the sky. He shows the Medical Officer his pumpkin seeds that he carries, which affects the Medical Officer. He tells Michaels he must go back to gardening when the war is over. Michaels does not reply. He seems to the Medical Officer like a “stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is now suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand” (135).


Michaels is stable but complains of being cold though the nights are warmer. He asks the Medical Officer why anyone is making a fuss over him; he is not important. The Medical Officer replies that no, he is not important, but he is not forgotten; no one is forgotten. Michaels looks up at the ceiling and says his mother was forgotten. She worked her whole life and then got old and sick and was forgotten, and was thrown into the fire.

The Medical Officer tells him that they do for him what they have to do, and he can rest easy because there is nothing special about him. Deep down, though, the Medical Officer admits to himself that he does pay too much attention to Michaels. Who is he, he wonders?


Noel tells the Medical Officer there was an attack on Prince Albert’s water supply and the police want to talk to Michaels about his friends from the mountains. The Medical Officer protests, saying they’ve been over this: Michaels is sick and probably did not do any of what he is suspected of.

Noel and the Medical Officer visit Michaels and Noel tells the patient his friends in Prince Albert are misbehaving, and he ought to be helpful and tell them what he knows. The Medical Officer adds that they know he did not do all of this but he can save people a lot of unhappiness if he will just say what he does know.

Michaels is silent and glares at them. Finally, he says, “I am not in the war” (138). Irritated, the Medical Officer says everyone is in the war. This is a camp, not a holiday resort, and if he does not cooperate he will go somewhere worse.

Michaels says he is not clever with words, and the Medical Officer says he does not need to be. He asks about his garden. Michaels says the vegetables for not for anyone because they came from the earth, and the soldiers took them, and he does not mind because “what grows is for all of us” (139). The Medical Officer asks Michaels to tell Noel the story of his mother but he will not; it clearly makes him upset. The Medical Officer then asks him to tell the story of his father. Michaels glowers. When he then asks about children or family, the silence is deafening.

With a sigh, the Medical Officer says Michaels was brought here to talk and they’ve done a great deal for him and now he needs to deliver. He says Michaels can start anywhere he wants—with his mother, his father, his views on life, his garden, his friends from the mountains. He just needs to talk. He needs to be more than a number; he needs to share his voice and be heard.

Abruptly, Noel leaves. The Medical Officer follows him, pleading with Noel to understand that Michaels is a simpleton who will not talk. He is helpless and the Medical Officer knows because he has watched him for days; there is no story here. What they ought to do is just to make up the names of twenty or thirty men and the arms they carried, and say they had a camp and that will be enough to keep the authorities off their back. Noel wonders about this lie but the Medical Officer replies that there is probably more truth in that story than anything they’d get out of Michaels. Noel is reluctant, but the Medical Officer insists that there is nothing else in Michaels’ story; he is not of this world and they are wasting time.

The Medical Officer addresses himself privately to Michael, saying this is how he saved his life—they made up a story and he can stay there now. He hopes Michaels is grateful. He also wonders how Michaels even survived, with his weakness and no family or money or papers. He is so obscure that he almost seems a prodigy.


The Medical Officer reflects on the camp and its methods of attending to the residents’ bodies and souls. For their souls, there is a choir and a pastor; for their bodies, there is a medical officer. They will be rehabilitated and then they will be sent away.


The Medical Officer discharges Michael from physical activity but notices Michaels doing it anyway and asks the duty officer. The man shrugs and says he can do it until he drops out, and he was probably lying about his condition anyway. Michaels jogs past them, his eyes shut sweetly. The Medical Officer wonders if he does indeed believe too many of Michaels’ stories, and perhaps he just does not need to eat as much as other people.


Michaels is back. He comes in with feet and hands cold as ice, unconscious. The Medical Officer asks how this happened and Felicity says to ask Sergeant Albrecht. The Sergeant says stiffly that Michaels refused to sing when ordered. The Medical Officer is affronted, saying Michaels is not right in the head and cannot speak properly, not to mention he is too weak for physical exercise. The Sergeant shrugs and says it is in the rulebook.


When Michaels wakes he pushes away the food bottle, saying it is not his kind of food. The Medical Officer is irritated and questions why Michaels will not eat and cooperate. Michaels croaks that he never asked for special treatment.

The Medical Officer asks Noel to write Michaels a discharge and send him out. Noel looks at him, wondering about his interest in Michaels. He says that if the man wants to starve himself and die, let him. The Medical Officer protests that it is that he does not like the food here. Noel is quiet, then reminds the Medical Officer that when Michaels came here he was as thin as a Holocaust survivor.


At night the Medical Officer walks quietly over to Michaels’ bedside and whispers to him that he will die if he does not eat. He will treat Michaels like a free man and will not force him to eat, but he will die. Michaels looks like he will respond but does not. Pressing on, the Medical Officer asks what kind of food Michaels wants. Michaels simply turns over to sleep.


Most of the camp’s inhabitants are “finished” and are sent away, but Michaels is one of a small number deemed “intractable” or unhealthy. The Medical Officer is feeling a slight sense of optimism when he thinks about the camp being closed down for good, but he knows they can only keep planning day by day.


The Medical Officer finds butternut squash and gives a few pieces sprinkled with sugar on them to Michaels, who eats them and says he likes them. He asks what would persuade Michaels to eat, and Michaels replies that no one has ever been interested before so he has to ask himself why. The Medical Officer replies that he does not want anyone to starve the death. Michaels looks off into the distance and wonders aloud what he is to this man. The Medical Officer can only say in a low tone that he too was different before Michaels came—he was happy as one could be in a place like this, but now things are different.


The Medical Officer addresses this as if in a letter to Michaels. He proclaims that he wants to know his story, that he cannot understand how he is involved in a war in which he has no place. He does not know why Michaels ever left the bushes; he should have spent his whole life in some nondescript place in a peaceful suburb. Why did he leave Cape Town? His mother was “the very embodiment of Great Mother Death” and now that she is gone he wants to follow her. What does Michaels see with his wide eyes? Does he see his mother with her flaming hair?

He also wonders what kind of food Michaels really ate. It is impossible to survive only on pumpkin. Was it manna, he asks? He thinks Michaels should have hidden away, as “there is no home left for universal souls” (151).

This death that Michaels is heading for is one of “pain and misery and shame and regret” (151) and he must himself around. The Medical Officer says he is the only one who sees him as the original soul that he is, the only one who cares for him. He is not a hard case for a soft camp or a soft case for a hard camp, but the last of his kind. He is going to “perish in obscurity and be buried in a nameless hole in a corner of the racecourse” (152) if he does not yield. So, he concludes, he must yield.


There seem to be holdups for new intakes, and the Medical Officer and Noel hope maybe they’ll just be forgotten here and can “play out the duration of the war in quiet oblivion behind our walls” (153).

Noel and the Medical Officer speak about Michaels. They do not want to force-feed him. The Medical Officer could alleviate his suffering, but he is reluctant to do so in case he changes his mind.


Noel is upset today, the Medical Officer notices, because the distinction between rehabilitation camps and internment camps is being abolished. Noel confesses that he is thinking of resigning, and admits he is not an iron man, which is the kind of man you need to run an iron camp. The Medical Officer thinks that this very fact is why he likes Noel.


Michaels is gone, having escaped in the night. Noel does not know what to do about the reporting protocol. The Medical Officer urges them to fake a death report and just let Michaels go; he never should have been here or even have been born into a place like this. He is not wearing his camp pajamas and will not say anything about where he came from because he will not want to be sent back.

The Medical Officer, at Noel’s request, does a circuit to make sure Michaels didn’t collapse just outside the wall. He did not, of course, but the Medical Officer spends time ruminating. He wishes he could take the day off and go to the beach, and bring Noel with him and meet some girls—isn’t the point of the war “to augment the sum of happiness in the universe? Or was I misremembering, was that another war I was thinking of” (157).

The Medical Officer reports back and Noel wearily draws up the death report. The Medical Officer is struck by the fact that he wasting his life living this way, day to day in a state of waiting. For a moment he wishes a policeman would bring Michaels back.


Four hundred new prisoners in abject shape are brought in. The staff is working all day to process them and restore them to a baseline of health. They learn that Kenilworth is being updated to high-security status. Noel is upset at the short notice and the Medical Officer privately wonders if it is time to leave. Indeed, he thinks he should have left with Michaels. If only he’d taken him seriously, he would have been ready to go when Michaels steps out.

He then imagines he actually is following Michaels, and he narrates his putative comments. He would tell Michaels he is sorry for the way he treated him, that he just wants to live somewhere simple and thinks Michaels can teach him how to do so. Michaels is not a hero or pretend to be one, but his resistance was real—well, he corrects himself, it was not really resistance. He did what they said, he acquiesced in will, yet his body refused to do so. He could not eat their food; his body would rather die than change its nature. This was puzzling to him, but he could not help but become more and more certain that Michaels was a singular figure. He was more than a patient—he means something.

The Medical Officer imagines himself saying this to Michaels as the man is walking away, dubiously looking back at him, anxious to put miles between himself and the camp. Maybe he would break into a run, and the Medical Officer would have to run after him and tell him his stay in the camp was an allegory of how “outrageously meaning can take up residence in a system without becoming a term in it” (166).

He would be out of breath now but would pant at Michael how important his garden is. It is nowhere and everywhere, and it where he belongs.

Perhaps now, he imagines, children and other observers would be around, looking at him as a madman as he pursues Michaels. Michaels, who would see him as “the man in blue who must seem to be persecutor, madman, bloodhound, policeman” (167). Maybe the children would throw stones at him, and he’d have to shout out his question of whether or not Michaels understands him.


In Part Two of the novel, Coetzee shifts the narration, giving it to an unnamed Medical Officer at Kenilworth, the rehabilitation camp where K is sent after being picked up by the soldiers at the Visagie farm. The Medical Officer is intrigued by K, not understanding why someone like him is deemed an “insurgent” and why he will not simply eat the camp’s food to survive. The Officer’s particular worldview shapes his view of K, ultimately leading him to make his own conclusions about who K is, what he wants, what he’s thinking, and more.

The Officer, David Babcock writes, “enjoys professional class privilege yet suffers from existential impoverishment.” He grows more and more uncomfortable with what the camp is and what it symbolizes, and he yearns to escape and/or for the war to be over. By the end of this section of the novel, he is “paralyzed, capable neither of performing his job nor of imagining a viable alternative.” Since Coetzee uses first-person narration, we are privy to the Officer’s vacillations, his ruminations, and his concerns. He is not altogether awful, helping to fake a report about K’s putative role in the insurgency so he’ll be left alone, and faking his death report once he escapes. He sees a distinction between himself and the other officers at the camp, such as Sgt. Albrechts, who punishes K for not singing when instructed to.

Yet, the Officer doesn’t truly get to know K for who he is. In fact, he calls him “Michaels,” which is not his name. He begins to fetishize him because he sees him as “an alternative ethical horizon, but signifying what lies beyond the contradictions of the state.” He muses that “I am not sure he is wholly of our world” (130); that he is an idiot and a stick figure; that he is “like a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is now suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand…An unbearing, unborn creature” (135); that he is “the obscurest of the obscure, so obscure as to be a prodigy” (142); that he is “a soul blessedly untouched by doctrine, untouched by history…the last of your kind, a creature left over from an earlier age” (151); and someone who “should have never been born into a world like this” (155).

All of this dreamy, dramatic characterization of K is indicative of the officer, as Erin Mitchell writes, “thoroughly appropriat[ing] and reconstru[ing] K’s experience.” He “overdetermines Anna K’s significance” and “tells K’s story for him.” He “has transformed K into an allegorical figure,” and K eventually escapes from yet another attempt by the state to control his life and his story.

Why does Coetzee shift the novel like this? Critic Duncan McColl Chesney suggests that it is done specifically to “provide a quasi-official, white interpretation that is as well-meaning as it is wrong.” The Officer is a “benevolent imperialist” who is well-intentioned but unable to understand his patient. He “refuses to place K within a human, social context in which his unsuitability can have critical meaning.” Indeed, he is only somewhat better than the other manifestations of the state whom K has come into contact with prior to Kenilworth.