Matéi Visniec’s Mr. K Released is a delightfully absurd and surreal novel about the disorienting qualities of freedom.
Mr. K, called Kosef J in a nod to Kafka, finds himself released from prison. He is jubilant but also confused by the prison guards’ lack of direction: he is not told how to gather his belongings and leave. So he stays, uncertain of whether he should demand an explanation.
The prison guards are friendly but distracted, and Kosef J soon falls into a routine of assisting them in their work, participating in their games, and living off of prison food and shelter. The longer he remains, the more he is enmeshed in prison life, and he discovers strange goings-on in the prison underworld.
Kosef J’s bewilderment at his predicament is artfully captured. His situation is bizarre but believable because of the careful charting of his thoughts and feelings. Visniec’s precise, realistic descriptions of his interactions with prison inmates and guards is enjoyable and unsettling. Suspense builds, slow and steady, as Kosef J forms a new life, though expecting to be ejected from it at any moment.
The book is focused on ideas and the atmosphere more than it is on characterization. Kosef J is both free and not, and the novel is subtle in exploring what freedom means, the extent to which Kosef J desires it, and the conditions under which it flourishes or is suppressed. Kosef J’s timidity shows how terrifying claiming one’s freedom can be. The prison’s underground world complicates ideals of democracy and self-determination and stands in uneasy contrast to a prison environment that should be authoritarian but is oddly lax and porous.
Mr. K Released is an engrossing novel of ideas that is entertaining and challenging in its strangeness.
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