(New Directions, 2018)
Hades, Gehenna, Hell: every culture has one, a realm of punishment without end. By any name, too, it’s been inspiration without end. For creative types, the Awful Place allows awesome freedom. It brings the taboo to light and raises a compelling challenge. Anyone who drops in, hero or schmuck, immediately starts to ask: how do we get out? How can lovesick Orpheus get back his Eurydice? How is Stanley Elkin to liberate poor Ellerbee, not such a bad guy, once he’s consigned to the flames (in The Living End, 1979)?
The same question, and the imaginative freedom that goes with it, enlivens Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital. Certainly the text—novella, novel, or whatever—bears easy-to-recognize infernal contours. The narrator finds himself behind “the large iron gates of a hospital,” barred from an unnamed seaside city he’ll “never see again.” The environs are North African and way of life Islamic, with strict gender segregation—the only women appear in recollection or dream—and the facility does have meals and orderlies. Still, in these halls there’s no telling the way to Mecca, and “nothing survives...except bones and men pale as lice.” A number of these are “real pigs,” including a “walking skeleton” who took an ax to his wife and her lover.
Insofar as anyone speaks of culture, it’s bad news: “Too much servitude has made us forget what dignity...and tolerance truly are. We don’t even know how to talk any more, [given] our people’s pitiful vocabulary.” And when the narrator manages to catch some sleep, things don’t get any better: “ink cap mushrooms sprout . . . from my ears, nostrils, and weeping eyes.”
Yet as Bouanani parses out his disturbing material, the brief chapters feel as much bumptious as grim, and even sometimes laughable. These men don’t whistle past the graveyard—they chatter, and eventually they take part in a comic roll call:
“Here!” . . .
“What’s your profession?”
“Ruffian, robber, occasional trafficker, gigolo, pimp, and when it come to the Creator, an I-don’t-give-a-shitter . . .”
“I’m in between jobs, sir.”
This Q. and A. is a fantasy, to be sure, and elsewhere the phantasmagoria tends to be likewise mind-boggling, not simply macabre. Similar surprises lurk in the few flashbacks to city life and those pages that work through sickbed routines. There’s even a party, a feast on the verge of Ramadan, and every day brings its shot of stubborn vitality: “I am a rumpled blue pajama among other rumpled blue pajamas, a member of a melancholic and joyful brotherhood . . . .”
The oxymoron makes a terrific fit for a narrative that has fun—in its own rumpled blue way—with Hell. This goes too for the hell of a body in decay. One of The Hospital’s most powerful dream passages, a nightmare itself described as “tenacious as leprosy,” offers a vision of the Resurrection that is at once ghoulish and embarrassing:
The old man rises, his penis stiff as a billy club, . . . “Come on, . . . can’t you hear the archangel’s trumpets?”. . . [The dead] arrive in legions, draped in rotting shrouds, foreheads branded with red iron by winged mercenaries, in a crush of bones barely sticking together, painfully staying on their feet, searching in their empty skulls for memories of a terrestrial existence with the despair of a horde of old men devoured by lice.
Such stuff recalls Beckett, an author Bouanani would have read, as well as later connoisseurs of the charnel house, like Blake Butler. By and large I found The Hospital a singular experience, one of those that locates a new hook on which to hang a story. The text’s joy and melancholy works up an unlikely narrative momentum—suspense.
Speaking of suspense, though, I can’t overlook the drama in how this book reached American readers. Ahmed Bouanani died in 2011, in his 70s, in a Moroccan hill town. He’d retreated there after personal disasters in his native Rabat, and after the lifelong disaster of eking out a career in a culture both oppressed and neglected. Hampered first by French officials and then by homegrown dictators, Bouanani was best known as a filmmaker, though he finished only one full-length feature, and that in street Arabic. The patois was essential to his vision, he wanted his movies to “get audiences used to seeing themselves and their problems,” and so his literary output too was full of dialect and on small local presses (a good deal more remains in manuscript). The Hospital was his lone book of prose, appearing in 1990, and a decade or so later, a persistent scholar had to go to Uruguay to find a copy. Translation into both standard Arabic and French came in 2012, followed by a storm of acclaim.
In the States, New Directions proved on the ball as ever, also bringing out two collections of poems (in September, 2018, they hosted a roundtable on Bouanani at McNally Jackson). For The Hospital they found the award-winning translator Lara Vergnaud; between her thoughtful afterword and the introduction by Anna Della Subin, a biography and more, the text in hand glows a like a double-miracle, in its provenance as well as in how it sets its skeletons dancing.
So long as Guzzler and the others are up and moving, though, couldn’t they get out? The question crops up in bizarre ways, naturally — and it bears especially on the narrator. “Once you’re healed,” one of his friends complains, “you’ll leave;” our protagonist’s not in hospice, it turns out, but in treatment, wearing a tracheal tube. The tensions around his escape add yet another twist to the fiction’s strange choreography, its whirling, dying dervishes. As for the end of the dance, that has a rich ambiguity. It has both the scent of fresh basil and ugly talk of murder—elements ill matched yet deeply satisfying—in a paradox that speaks for the artist as well. Bouanani sought to bring out the truth of his homeland even as that land itself, one way or another, rendered honest expression impossible; he had no end of impediments and no more than the narrowest way out. Yet with The Hospital he made it, demonstrating, again, how the best work can run any gantlet, even one lined with devils.