Part parable of human fallibility, part allegorical critique of political systems at which we fail and which fail us, Mr. K Released draws on the chaotic transition from totalitarianism to democracy that Romania, Matéi Visniec’s homeland, and other former Eastern Bloc countries, experienced after the collapse of communism in the late 1980s. Visniec’s own transition, more drastic than that of most of his compatriots, provides additional inspiration. In 1987, at the age of thirty-one, he managed to escape Ceausescu’s authoritarian regime and apply for political asylum in France, where he finally settled two years later, in 1989.
When we spot, in the novel’s first sentence, the protagonist’s name, Kosef J, anagrammed from Joseph K., we recognize the nod to Kafka. That we are in fact on Kafkaesque ground becomes evident immediately, though Camus, Becket, Ionesco, Orwell, and Saramago make their presence felt gradually as well. “Somebody must have slandered Joseph K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested” (1), begins Kafka’s The Trial (1925). “One fine day, Kosef J found himself released from prison” (1), announces Matéi Visniec in Mr. K Released, so we may be inclined to read that as an auspicious beginning. After all, Josef K is separated by almost a century from his literary kin. Kafka penned the tragic fate of his K in 1914-1915 and Visniec started working on Mr. K in 1988, though the novel did not appear in print in Romanian until 2010. Still, as Visniec insists both in this novel and in his widely performed and much celebrated plays, we remain clueless, or at best confused, as to what freedom truly is. If anything, a new century obsessed with “freedoms” expressed through the global circulation of bodies and information has muddled our understanding.
If Kafka’s K dies without ever finding out the nature of the accusations that led to his arrest, Visniec’s K is plagued by similarly consuming questions about the nature and purpose of his release from prison. Both protagonists make futile attempts to navigate and understand bureaucracies and systems that cast freedom at best as relative, if not illusory. The irony of the letter swap in the two protagonists’ names reveals its richness gradually, as the borders between inside and outside (or imprisoned and released) become increasingly porous and the opposites swappable. Even before he discovers an entire community of escaped convicts living within the abandoned parameters of the penal colony, and thus neither inside nor outside, Kosef J concludes that the boundary between the two worlds is “frail beyond belief” (84), and the elsewhere he had coveted for so long is only negligibly different from life as an inmate.
That Kosef J experiences his release as a sentence, and is filled with trepidation rather than joy, might strike us at first as absurd. However, the omniscient narration, transplanted skillfully into English by Jozefina Komporaly, draws us into a world of distress, self-doubt, and conflicting ideas and emotions so persuasively concocted sentence by sentence that it is impossible not to feel for—and with—the agonizing Mr. K. Komporaly renders Visniec’s lucid absurdism in all its poetry but without poeticizing, and with an intimate understanding of his characters’ interiority and tonal quirks.
Kosef J attempts to rationalize his inability to exert free will or even walk through the open gate in ways that reveal how dependent he has become on the system, how conditioned to follow rules. After years inside, where every decision was made for him, he feels distraught and “out of bounds” (38) at the prospect of being released to the outside with “no point of reference whatsoever” (21). So, he tells himself he needs to be officially released by the prison’s colonel and have properly tailored clothes. When he does venture out into what functions here as an echo of the Edenic orchard, he bites into the apple but leaves it hanging on the branch, half-eaten and unpicked. He feels like a runaway and quickly returns. Later, when he agrees, reluctantly, to accompany the guards into town for bread supplies, he pretends he is still an inmate, and keeps his release a secret even from his mother, whom he visits briefly. The town misreads his status as that of model prisoner who has earned the trust of the guards, so he is relieved he has the opportunity to sustain that fantasy. It serves his fears well. In fact, sleeping now in the prison’s lift cage, literally and figuratively suspended and forced to a crouching position, he misses the relative comfort of the cell and knowing his place in the system.
One of the novel’s poignant ironies is that it is not the outside world that models what might be possible for the released Mr. K, but an idealized version of the prison system itself. The two guards, Franz Hoss and Fabius, reminisce nostalgically how the prison used to be “a well-oiled machine” ruled by “rigour, seriosity, and competence” and “everyone knew exactly what their particular role was and how far they could go” (77). Over cigarettes and tea, as they receive, unperturbed, news of a new escapee, the guards lament that prison life has “degraded and mellowed,” oblivious to their own part in the downturn. Kosef J’s suffering, they conclude, is the result of a generalized “bad state” of things (80). Visniec alludes here to the lingering effects of communism: the inability to conceive of life outside a “system,” to see oneself not as pawn but agent of one’s life, involved in the making of history.
If freedom is bound to turn, inevitably, into its own brand of captivity or succumb to systems of dependency (materialism, consumerism, etc.) that corrode it, then why not reconcile with the limitations of captivity? In his unknowing, or sense of not understanding “anything, anything at all from all this burdensome void” (226), Kosef J embodies this, and other similarly fomenting questions: What is freedom good for? Can it serve the individual and the collective in equal, or almost equal, measure? Are democracy and autocracy that drastically different? Just when the novel makes us think we have stumbled upon an answer, we are redirected and asked to think again. For instance, it is the community of escapees, we realize, not that of the townspeople who have never been ‘inside,’ that is best positioned to comprehend the relationship between freedom and captivity—a take on the adage that freedom might be impossible to define without its opposite.
In some fashion, the escapees are the dissidents of totalitarian regimes; they understand its mechanisms of oppression, and how they use that knowledge matters. At first, the fugitives of Visniec’s penal colony seek to create a system that balances individual and collective needs. They share what they salvage, rotate the megaphone through a lottery system, and establish democratic principles. The irony, and maybe one of Visniec’s main points here is that, for all their freedom, the escapees depend for survival on leftovers, scraps of clothes, and tools stolen from the prison. Therefore, they cannot put freedom to much use since they live in hiding, in the literal shadows and ruins of the system, and at its whim. The irony is compounded by the dubious morality that powers this “free world.” Increasingly, as deprivation sets in, its denizens engage in theft and in scheming that quickly shifts from working the system to hurting others. For instance, when the “free” escapees become ill, they are swapped with convicts so they may receive medical care. The infirmary becomes a hotbed for trafficking, with such substitutions of human life performed heartlessly and, gradually, in the interests of a rising class of privileged. Truly sick inmates are kidnapped and “freed” so the elite escapees of the “free world” may get a “much deserved” rest. Thus, the world of “the free” sustains itself by taking advantage of the chained. Mr. K is at first its messenger, then its agent. While waiting, as in Waiting for Godot, for an illumination on the meaning of his freedom, he becomes ensnared into the machinations of both worlds. He is “released” from prison into a slightly different kind of bondage, from one small cell into a larger and far more perplexing one.
The somber narrative includes moments of riveting and somewhat beautiful lyricism, as the one centered on the child with “a clean soul” (66) guarding the apple orchard, doing homework in the prison, and choosing buttons for a non-existent coat (49-50). The sensory details of the clothing supply room recreate the sense of suffocation and manic elation the tailor must experience in his kingdom-inferno of decaying clothes. His desperate efforts to preserve them seem as doomed as humans’ attempt at preserving their moral fabric: “the fabrics had started to rot, each at a different pace, emanating their unique smell” (68). Many of the items “had dissolved and mingled together like hungry mushrooms.” In the open air, exposed to sunlight, the clothes undergo “a sort of moral collapse, unable to present any resistance whatsoever to pathogenic factors” (70-71). ‘Released,’ the former owners of the clothes undergo a similar fate, succumbing to both known and mysterious pathogens.
“There’s no dignity in face of starvation” (245), and “[t]here is no reasoning in face of starvation”(246), the escapees muse toward the end of the novel. Trapped in a “democracy of hunger” (246), they start dying, or losing their minds, or hording the penicillin, or entertaining thoughts of violence. A dubious meritocracy sets in, with democratic principles being bent to rationalize self-interest and justify constant surveillance. That democracy may come to look uncannily similar to authoritarianism is less than shocking to those who have lived in both systems, as Visniec has, and I have. When the “lucid voices” of the “free world” deem the suicidal man a “traitor and an enemy of democracy” (271), I am catapulted back to Romania at the peak its totalitarianism, 1987: Summoned to an emergency assembly in the high school courtyard, we turn complicit in the public condemnation of Isabela, the classmate who took her life the day before. We are warned against attending the burial of “a traitor and enemy of our communist society.” Visniec’s searing insight is handled here with as much subtlety as allegory allows: There is no structure of power that is not susceptible to corruption and abuse, and each system can easily turn into what it had set out to defy. Thus, the novel is not interested in either indicting or promoting one system over another. If anything, the values and pitfalls that set seemingly profoundly different systems–such as communism and capitalism–apart prove to be alarmingly interchangeable.
The point is pushed further with the realization that the outmost circle of the “free world,” the town with its bread factory and beer hall, is not free, but simply blind to its own confinement. In his final bread run into town, Kosef J finds it razed to the ground. It “looked like an animal that had been put through flames and had its skin scorched here and there,” with old men emerging “from all the cracks of this wounded town (…) crawling, as if for the first time, toward light” (265). Seeking an explanation, Kosef J is offered, repeatedly, a puzzling “They’ll build others” (264). The inexplicable demolition parallels the abandoned settlements Kosef J had discovered earlier when, upon release, but afraid to venture out, he explored the penal colony’s environs: “[T]the prison had in fact travelled in time and space, leaving in its trails the ruins of another four or five similar settlements” (115). At this point, Kosef J puzzles over why someone would abandon and rebuild the prison “following more or less the same principle” (115). Visniec’s answer, the way I take it, is that despite the lessons of history, we continue to operate under the illusion that the next structure or system will work better, blind to how similar the new is to the old. If there’s a sense of historical déjà vu (Joseph K returned as Kosef J), it is here to serve as a reminder that if we let it, history will play out on a loop, recreating the present as a perpetual past, with each system drawing a slightly different set of illusions to hang onto.
Despite its dark tones, Mr. K Released does not overbrew in fatalism, as my review might inadvertently intimate. Its pessimism has its own brand of optimism. Visniec reminds us how susceptible we are to precipitous dégringolades, mostly of our own making, but only so we keep asking questions at every historical turn, before we get too infatuated with one system or -ism or another, or with the notion of freedom itself.
Visniec, Matéi. Mr K Released. Translated from Romanian by Jozefina Komporaly. Seagull Books, 2020. The book was shortlisted for the 2021 EBRD Literature Prize.
Mihaela Moscaliuc is the author of the poetry collections Cemetery Ink (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021), Immigrant Model (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) and Father Dirt (Alice James Books, 2010), translator of Liliana Ursu’s Clay and Star (Etruscan Press, 2019) and Carmelia Leonte’s The Hiss of the Viper (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2014), editor of Insane Devotion: On the Writing of Gerald Stern (Trinity University Press, 2016), and co-editor of Border Lines: Poems of Migration (Knopf, 2020). She is the translation editor for Plume and associate professor of English at Monmouth University.