‘The Critical Case of “K.”’: The Diary as a Trick

Saudi novelist Aziz Mohamed’s The Critical Case of ‘K’ is on this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlist. The novel follows “K,” who reads Kafka and decides that he, too, wants to keep a diary, although he is frustrated by his limited abilities and boring life:

By Mahmoud Hosny

In his debut novel The Critical Case of “K,” الحالة الحرجة للمدعو ك (Dar Altanweer, 2017), the Saudi writer Aziz Mohamed uses a diary format to tell the story of a young man called “K.” The protagonist is sick with leukemia and struggles with his illness, family, and work environment in an unnamed country—although it’s clear from the place details that it’s a Gulf country.

From the beginning, the narration flows smoothly. The novel’s vocabulary and sentence structure tend to simplicity, which helps the novelist avoid weakness and slowness in the narration.

The central theme of “K.” is much stronger than most literature coming from the Gulf. Aziz takes a deep dive into K.’s illness, works on crystalizing his childhood, and describes details of his relationship with his family and work colleagues. All this helps in making the core of the novel solid. However, there’s something in the chronological approach, and the way that the time unfolds, that negatively effects the narration’s rhythm and weakens its ability to be more stylistically diverse.

There’s some flatness inherent to the way the writer draws the other characters in K.’s family and workplace. We see them just through K.’s eyes, through their behaviors towards him and how he sees all of that. We can’t know how they think, and this focus on K.’s way of seeing leads the work to a lengthy focus on the illness and its medical details, as well as K.’s ideas of the world.

We can see here a decision, on Aziz Mohamed’s part, to write a book that seems to be a person’s diaries. Yet this book needs more editing work, because we are still looking to read a novel, not diaries, and the diaries here are just a technical trick, not a structural goal.

Through the second half of the work, the reader can predict what will happen: K.’s decisions and behaviors towards those around him become repetitive and redundant. In this, the dramatic escalation fails us, as it doesn’t remain surprising until the end.

The work reads like a satire of society, whether addressing the characters at home or at work. A deep exile appears at the core of K.’s personality, with many readings translated from or written in foreign languages. At the same time, there’s no reconciliation with the self. When K. decides he will do something, it appears as a reaction to others, a move against them, not something chosen by himself. That could be a central question around the writer’s way of creating K.

Yet with all of these criticisms of the novel, Aziz still has something solid in the core of his work. And you know that if, one day, he publishes a new book, you’ll want to get a copy to see what he has this time.

Mahmoud Hosny is an Egyptian author and critic.