Keleigh's Reviews > The Case Worker

The Case Worker by George Konrád
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Mar 08, 09

bookshelves: schooldaze

I recently heard of a man who, as a very deliberate exercise in recognizing the oneness of all beings, sat in the office of a lockdown mental institution, or perhaps it was a prison, and read every patient’s file, “owning” every atrocious act and the underlying pain-motivations committed by the “untouchables, the maladjusted, the waste products” (101) segregated by society—in essence, healing that part of himself reflected by these people. The story goes that within three months every patient/prisoner was released.

Konrad is engaged in a similar kind of healing, acknowledging his superficial position of detachment on “the other side of the desk” (30), but proceeding to “metamorphose” into one of his castaway clients—living out the day-to-day life (if only in his head) of Bandula, in his home, with his child. He slips into other clients’ bodies and consciousness as well, not only by telling their stories but by physically uniting with Anna the prostitute (“I am her body; it is I tripping down the stairs on her toes deformed by ill-fitting shoes…” [153:]). By “coming to understand Bandula more and more clearly, and coming to understand why no one had the right to come between him and the child” (164), Konrad’s narrator becomes Bandula, and every other case he has overseen with desensitized carelessness, disgust, sympathy, horror, superiority, “professional” distance, and ultimately a sense of helpless futility. He transgresses the border between “us” and “them,” much like Coetzee did by involving himself with the barbarian girl.

This is a brilliant book on so many levels. It resonates on issues of industrialization, personal and social responsibility, the tendency of humans to identify as victims, the tendency of societies to set up structures separating the “good” (those who function competently in industrial life) and the “bad” (those who can’t or won’t). Though the narrator in the end is returning to his position on the official side of the desk, to hear and resolve or ignore and fail to change the grievances of society’s miscreants, he ends on an invitation: like a true Lady Liberty he welcomes “all those come who want to; one of us will talk, the other will listen; at least we shall be together.” A shift in consciousness does not necessarily mean that the appearance of one’s circumstances or vocation changes. The narrator is a case worker; that is what he does. But now he is offering something akin to connection, an ear infused with empathy.
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