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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Critical Case
of a Man Called K

Aziz Mohammed

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To purchase The Critical Case of a Man Called K

Title: The Critical Case of a Man Called K
Author: Aziz Mohammed
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 260 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Critical Case of a Man Called K - US
The Critical Case of a Man Called K - UK
The Critical Case of a Man Called K - Canada
  • Arabic title: الحالة الحرجة للمدعو ك
  • Translated by Humphrey Davies

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Our Assessment:

B : solid variation on a familiar kind of story

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Critical Case of a Man Called K is a novel of illness, the young narrator eventually diagnosed with leukemia and then undergoing treatment for it. Even before he is diagnosed, however, and then even beyond the physical illness, a crushing existential ennui is suffocating him. The title of the novel brings to mind Kafka -- and, indeed, the narrator reads and relates to both Kafka and his characters -- but the opening sentence (and paragraph) -- "The moment I wake, I'm overcome by a feeling of nausea" -- is a clear nod to the Sartre-novel, as this narrator feels, and deals with, a similar existential Angst (compounded -- and somewhat blurred -- here then by the disease (and the attempts to medically confront it) that is overwhelming him).
       Like Nausea, The Critical Case of a Man Called K is presented in a diary-form. Here, however, the entries are only week by week, longer reflective overviews of events rather than journal-jottings; chapters are titled 'Week 1' through 'Week 40' -- though some weeks are skipped, as the narrator's physical condition prevents him from writing regularly.
       The narrator, an IT graduate, has worked in computer security for a petroleum company for three years. He's not very enthusiastic about his job, but it's not particularly demanding and offers job-security -- "a guaranteed future": he's accepted that this path is the one one follows, though his heart is certainly not in it. He still lives at home, and family looms large in his life; he has clearly not broken free in any meaningful way, and his reminiscences include many from his childhood and youth. His father died when he finished high school; his sister has married into a wealthy family and his older brother's marriage is in the works. He is not particularly close to his siblings, but there is some sense of family cohesiveness and obligation. Change looms ahead, however: when his brother marries, the plan is for their mother to move in with the newlyweds and for the family house to be sold.
       The narrator is a great reader -- and also tries to write, though he finds himself unable to get much beyond these reflective diary-entries. While not exactly supportive, his father did give him the money for the books he wanted in his youth, and he read widely. His mother is less enthusiastic about his choices -- just reading the titles of his Dostoevsky-novels she moans: "How can you hope to be happy after all that ?"
       Among the books accompanying him on his journey is Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, though he struggles to make much headway with it. Eventually, as his illness and the debilitating chemotherapy to treat it wear him down he turns to lighter fare -- and worries about this particular change that the illness (and its would-be cure) are leading to:

I'd finished a novel by Murakami a few days before, not because it was any good but because I found the pages easy to turn, and it was only then that I discovered how much the disease had changed me. If this regime was going to make me prefer Murakami to Thomas Mann, what else might it do to me ?
       The narrator doesn't seem to have ever held out much hope of being happy. His illness allows him to focus and withdraw even more into himself; he doesn't seem surprised by and he doesn't bemoan his fate, as though he finds himself deserving of it.
       He's long been afflicted by nosebleeds, but now they prove a symptom of a more serious underlying condition. And yet to him the condition seems to have been one he's long lived with, the cancer merely a physical manifestation that is now coming to the fore (with a vengeance). Rather foolishly, he believed: "for ages now I've been an expert at self-diagnosis, a skill I've gradually developed to the point that I now avoid going to doctors" -- but his self-diagnosis of his existential misery blinds him to his actual physical condition, and when he finally receives medical attention, it's rather late in the day to try to come to grips with it.
       The treatment he undergoes is also debilitating. What is meant to be a path to betterment is in fact just a cruel reminder of the human condition, as he realizes:
     By this stage, I had excluded the word "cure" from my dictionary for good. Even if the cancer were to be destroyed, the chronic side effects caused by the disease and its treatment have erased any hope of my living a safe, natural life. The constantly renewed realization of this truth is unbearable. Sometimes I feel as though I'm discovering that I have the disease for the first time, all over again.
       And yet of course it's always been within him, the cancer just a physical manifestation of his troubled being. Only in extremis does he even consider the concept of: "living a safe, natural life"; it has never really seemed plausible to him.
       The Critical Case of a Man Called K is a novel of disease, pushing the narrator even further away from the 'normalcy' of life he see around him -- one that, at both work and home, he bristles against in any case. There's something of a wallow to it -- "How much despair do I desire to endure before I start to listen, at last, to my need to be rescued ?" -- but he seems to find some satisfaction in sheer endurance (having little else to hold onto). Tellingly, his path eventually sees him escape both workplace and home (and family, and homeland), environments that fostered his underlying dissatisfaction -- yet as he notes, quoting Kafka, there's only so much to be found in the freedom that comes with the successful cutting of such ties.
       Many of the characters in The Critical Case of a Man Called K are very well-drawn, from family members to those at his workplace, but the novel remains one veiled in anonymity (quite impressively handled by Mohammed). No characters are named -- even family is only described by relation --, and, while the locale can readily be presumed to be a city in Saudi Arabia, there's no geographic precision either. Among the few things the narrator gives an identifying name to is his workplace -- disguising it in (literature-inspired) invention: "Let's call it the Eastern Petrochemicals Company, after the Eastern Petrochemicals Company where one of Tanizaki's protagonists works". Saudi Arabian specifics -- down to inheritance-law -- do color the narrative, but loosely enough that the story's universality outweighs these: the narrator's sufferings are a familiar story, different only in some details to those set in other cultures, societies, and times.
       The reliance on disease can be wearing: the novel is graphic and detailed, and while Mohammed does weave in quite a bit of action, beyond and around the illness-related happenings, and reminiscences, the illness and its treatment, and how they wear the narrator down, inevitably dominate the narrative. That certainly fits with the protagonist's own exhaustion, but can get to be a bit much. Like novels featuring other forms of debilitating excess -- alcohol; mental confusion -- it can feel like a bit of a wallow.
       The narrator's is a familiar kind of protagonist, too -- the kind who observes:
You surprise yourself with your capacity for patience, your capacity to pass long years, even entire decades, in the same temporary situation, the same uncomfortable posture, only to discover at the end that you free yourself from that situation only to die. But what else can you do ?
       (Yes, he and the novel are a bit of a downer .....)
       The socio-cultural background to the novel, and Mohammed's fine writing, do make for an intriguing read. Enough in The Critical Case of a Man Called K is sufficiently de-familiarized from the usual form this kind of novel takes to make for an interesting variation.

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 May 2021

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The Critical Case of a Man Called K: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Saudi author Aziz Mohammed (عزيز محمد) was born in 1987.

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© 2021 the complete review

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