To start with the obvious: Guatanamo is a political novel. I don’t mean this only in terms of its topical subject matter, although that’s true as well.1
But Guatanamo is also a political novel in the Brechtian sense: it concerns itself primarily with a situation—a set of institutional conditions—and places a character into this situation to see what comes about. This character is Rashid, a young German-Indian man with no terrorist affiliations who, through a series of events, has been abducted (no other word for it) by the U.S. Army and sent to Guatanamo, to live in a cage and be tortured.
The book takes Rashid through stages. The first, his capture and arrival, is marked by confusion, written as a mix of images and statements and flashbacks and thoughts. We piece together the basic details of his abduction, but primarily what’s conveyed is the disorientation that he feels, and that the reader feels as well. The second stage sees Rashid indoctrinated into the monotony of imprisonment, as Dieckmann catalogs a noveau roman’s worth of detail in page after page of flat, largely denotative prose:
The food works its way through his body, as inexorably as Allah’s appearances. From dawn to dusk. From wolfing it down to crapping it out. Prayers end with you kneeling; food with you squatting. And whether you are on the ground or on a bucket, you put your hands on your knees in a show of resignation, of monotony, of having digested it all. A ‘t-tahiyatu li ‘llah. But you don’t have to. You can just lay there and let everything pass you by, like the oranges on the mattresses. They don’t pray and they don’t eat. Rashid begrudges them their apathy. They don’t move, nothing moves them, and at some point they won’t even breathe anymore. He’s often tried to emulate them. He stretches out on his mattress and waits for the waiting to stop. Sometimes the monotony fades away. The sounds flow together, the surroundings press into his skin . . .
Subsequent chapters take Rashid through interrogation, torture, and back to his cage. He moves into and out of hallucination—more “into” as the book goes on—and since everything is given to us through his own thoughts and perceptions, large sections of the book are confusing in terms of actual events. Which is to say, the book is not primarily concerned with actual events, but rather with exploring the psychological effect of these events in as raw a form as possible.
This is political in the Brechtian sense, in that it constructs a rhetorical model of a person subjected to a particular set of circumstances—in this case, to techniques of institutionalized oppression. Yet this comparison quickly breaks down, because in Brecht characters are faced with ethical quandaries and the experiment is to see what will result from the choices they make. Dieckmann, in contrast, gives us a narrative emptied of choice. There is no ethical quandary within the pages of Guantanamo (there is certainly an ethical quandary off the page, where the reader must decide how to respond to this stark portrayal of imprisonment and torture), but for the character there is no decision; there is only circumstance. This is the nature of the violence enacted on Rashid: he is stripped of choice. His narrative is flattened out. Oppression is shown to be the imposition of circumstance over choice.
An utterly worthwhile goal for a novelist—to evoke the claustrophobia of prison, the disorientation of torture—but in terms of artistic success, such a project faces some serious obstacles. Characters’ choices are a large part of what make a novel interesting, and a book that disallows choice offers a stripped, straight-line narrative that no amount of verisimilitude alone will make interesting. In such a book, a writer has to compensate readers by engaging our interest in other ways.
Dieckmann trusts in the sheer immediacy, intimacy, and relentlessness of her prose—and that, I think, is where the book runs into danger, for she is asking a great deal of a prose style aimed, for large sections of the book, at articulating banality itself. Despite what seems to me (who reads no German) a very careful and rhythmic translation, there is, at times, a static quality to the prose that provides little in the way of forward momentum; as a result, when we run across one of the very few clunkers—”But the cage was stronger than his despair”—the book’s energy sinks rather quickly.
Which is a shame, because what this journey eventually amounts to is something both compelling and unexpected. Toward the end, in sections that are increasingly hallucinatory, Dieckmann brings together the various forces that have been acting upon Rashid’s psyche to produce a conclusion that is deeply strange and disturbing, the psychological complexity of which she’s earned, moment by moment, through the book’s tireless accounting.
I suspect the most common criterion for deciding whether Guantanamo “works” would be that readers are made to feel empathy with Rashid, and are compelled by this empathy to bring about some sort of change in themselves. That is a political criterion, and I do believe Dieckmann aspires to be political in that way. Where she is most successful is in the aggregate—in combining horrific and banal moments into a single lived nightmare.
Martin Riker’s reviews and criticism have appeared in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, CONTEXT, Chicago Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He is the associate director of Dalkey Archive Press.
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