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from the April 2020 issue

In Matéi Visniec’s “Mr. K Released,” an Inmate Chooses Prison Over Freedom

Reviewed by Benjamin Woodard

Originally published in 2010, this funny, if faintly scattershot, novel relies on a Kafkaesque allegory to reconsider Romania’s late-1980s transition to democracy after decades of Communist rule.

Kosef J is an inmate at an unnamed Romanian prison, where he serves his sentence for an undisclosed crime. One day, after failing to give him breakfast, and later to drag him to the fields to work with the rest of the prisoners, a guard casually mentions that as of that morning, Kosef J is free. Yet the wary inmate knows nothing of the world beyond the high prison walls, having spent the better part of his adult life behind bars. Instead of marching out the front gate, Mr. K claims he cannot leave without receiving new clothes from the prison tailor, and that the prison’s colonel must first officially decommission him.

These two requests, which at first seem reasonable enough, are only the beginning of Mr. K’s increasingly convoluted acts to avoid freedom, to indefinitely delay his return to the real world. Matéi Visniec’s funny, if faintly scattershot, Mr. K Released takes us into a Kafkaesque universe of inscrutable authority and endless deferral, playing on motifs from works such as The Trial—whose protagonist, Josef K, is also found guilty of an undisclosed crime—or The Castle. Originally published in 2010, Visniec’s novel can be read as a Kafka-inspired allegory of Romania’s late-1980s transition to democracy after forty-plus years of communist rule. Like a country trying to adapt to a new form of freedom, and perhaps retrospectively longing for the evil it knew over the potential evil waiting to be discovered, Mr. K fears the great unknown of the outside world.

The longer he hangs around the prison, hoping someone will provide him instructions on how to start his new life, the more Kosef entangles himself with its bungling employees: Fabius and Franz Hoss, two guards; Rozette, the prison cook; an unnamed child who haunts the kitchen; and the aforementioned tailor—a man overwhelmed by his own need for perfection, working at the pace of molasses. In bite-sized chapters, Mr. K finds ways to become increasingly involved in the prison’s routine while he waits. He washes dishes in the kitchen, creates a makeshift bed for himself in an elevator, plays games of dice with the guards, and fills in as a reluctant disciplinarian when Fabius and Franz Hoss are sent to search for an escaped inmate.

In each scenario, Mr. K’s internal fears and dependence on the prison are palpable, and his conversations with his new peers show Visniec’s sly ability to manipulate tone, deftly conveyed in Jozefina Komporaly’s translation. Take the following exchange between Mr. K and Fabius in which the former prisoner confronts the guard after Fabius claims he has always admired Mr. K:

“How about when you were beating me up?” Kosef J asked.

“What do you mean?” Fabius seemed puzzled.

“How about then? Were you thinking this even then?” Kosef J probed.

“I was beating you, yes, but I also respected you,” Fabius sighed.

In four lines, the characters segue from confrontation to anger to half-hearted admission. As the conversation continues, Mr. K speaks of the fear Fabius inspires in the inmates, and again, Visniec confidently shifts tone via dialogue and brief description, with Fabius relishing the idea that he is seen as a brute:

“Everyone was frightened of you,” Kosef J said.

“Everyone, really?” the guard hummed like a wise old man listening to a palpitating story.

The complete scene unfolds over ten pages, and throughout, Visniec’s characters traverse a wide emotional spectrum. Mr. K and Fabius reminisce about various beatings the former prisoner received, Fabius claims his life has lost meaning, and by the end, Mr. K consoles his abuser, urging him to “take pleasure in simple things . . . Such as the sky, grass, water.” Much of the sprawling conversation consists of brief statements employing similar rhythm—Were you thinking; I was beating; Everyone was frightened—and the pattern forges a connection between the speakers, who otherwise present as physical and mental opposites. The pattern also becomes a kind of tune in which the novel sings, and the perceptible cadence no doubt owes something to Komporaly’s English translation.

Visniec’s greatest charm is his ear for dialogue, and here, as well as in numerous other conversations, characters push and pull, search for equal footing, share regrets, and remember atrocities the way others might recall favorite childhood memories. The conversations are quite funny, yet initial laughter at the absurdity of each moment turns to unease as the weight of the subject matter builds.

This double-whammy approach to storytelling and political commentary propels Mr. K Released, yet after Mr. K’s umpteenth postponement of his return to the real world, he is so deeply slotted into the prison system that his narrative purpose begins to sag. Visniec sidesteps this hazard by having Mr. K discover a community of escaped convicts living in a long-abandoned section of the prison. And while this twist bestows on the author additional narrative threads, not to mention a good joke—men escaping prison so they can continue to live in prison, but in worse conditions—the creation of a new environment, known as the democratic “free world,” causes any subtlety in the novel’s allegorical intent to dissipate.

That “democracy” is represented by a group of dirty, ailing convicts lets the air out of Visniec’s otherwise clever societal skewering. As the novel chugs toward its conclusion, this community of men becomes the main narrative focus, shoving Mr. K into the background and eliminating him completely from certain chapters. Still, there are moments of wit embedded in this lesser narrative. Members of the “free world” are never provided names, instead known as “the man with the cheerful face,” “the old man with white hair,” “the man with the cleft chin,” and so on. As Mr. K cavorts with the group, these monikers knot themselves until characters become indistinguishable, much in the same way the guards treat prisoners as numbers, not men. This stripped identity plays into Visniec’s examination of democracy’s potential pitfalls, further emphasized by a scam perpetrated by the clandestine democracy: when “free” escapees fall too ill to contribute to the democracy, the others kidnap accounted-for inmates and swap the escapees into their places, thus “freeing” a new set of inmates and allowing their sick compatriots to receive much-needed medical care.

Mr. K reclaims his initial center-stage status in the novel’s closing chapters, and his storyline concludes with an apt, if predictable, reveal. Yet Visniec purposefully leaves several subplots unresolved. Perhaps this decision acts as the author’s final commentary on Romania’s shift to democracy. Despite three decades of freedom, unknowns remain. Answers to big questions are impossible to predict, but in Mr. K Released, Matéi Visniec valiantly dissects the possibilities, producing an entertaining, layered novel that succeeds more often than it fails.

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