Michael is poor and born with a harelip. There's no father and his mother puts him in an orphanage, possibly because he's a bit slow. The book isn't narrated by him but much of it is seen from his point of view. He's inexperienced and unworldly but I'm not entirely sure he's unintelligent. The action takes during the civil war in South Africa when Michael K is an adult working as a gardener in a public park. His mother, who's been a maid for a rich family, is existing in a single room; she's clearly too ill to work. There is no politics in this book and the "real" world exists for the reader in the nebulous cloud it seems to be for Michael K. In fact the book reminds me a bit of Cormac McCarthy's The Road with the character moving though a nightmare environment which bears some resemblance (but not much) to the real world. This is not a world of ashes, but Michael knows only what touches him directly and has no clue what the war is about, what side he is on or even what his place in the world should be. He tries to follow the rules in a chaotic environment. His mother wants to return to the country village where she grew up and he fashions a crude cart to attach to his bicycle and pull her. Their journey is made horrid by the weather and by the people they meet along the way—soldiers, others escaping the city, some preying on the travelers. The mother dies in a hospital on the way, is cremated and the ashes given to Michael. With his mother's death, Michael loses his last touch with the world around him and becomes so isolated that he digs a hole in the ground to live in while cultivating pumpkins on an abandoned farm that may or may not be the one where his mother grew up. He has visions of his mother in flames and eventually remembers her death as "They burned her up". He's found in his hole by the authorities and assumed to be a supporter of the rebels who refuses to talk when actually he has no clue what his interrogators are talking about. He is shunted to a hospital where a medical officer tries and fails to "save" him. He escapes initially by refusing to talk and then, cleverly, manages to walk out.
One cannot help but think there's a way in which Michael K is "saner" and "brighter" than those around him who engage, one way or another, in a destructive and inhumane war. The reader to some extent shares the frustration of the medical officer who tries to "save" Michael. But save him from what and to what?