An unnamed man travels to an unnamed country to take on an unspecified role at his employer’s home office. The foreign country is in the midst of political and social upheaval, spurred on by an apparently virulent but possibly harmless (except for the paranoia it engenders) plague. Through a series of misfortunes, misunderstandings, and mis-remembered crimes, the man finds himself exiled to a rat-filled sewer in a foreign country, slowly losing his identity.
This is a grim, uncomfortable book. Many of the reviews have compared it to Kafka, and that’s certainly fitting: there’s faceless bureaucracy as in “The Castle,” a sense of paranoia as in “The Trial,” the weirdness of a foreign land as in “Amerika,” dissolution of the self as in “The Metamorphosis”, and the dissolution of society as in “An Old Manuscript.” Unlike a typical Kafka protagonist, though, the man in this story is drenched in guilt and part of his dissolution is an embrace of the worst, most inhuman parts of himself.
Rats, monkeys, garbage, knives (sharp and blunt), blood, and foul smells pervade the novel’s imagery. It’s a fascinating descent into horror; hardly a pleasant read, but a powerful one.