The Hospital by Ahmed Bouanani (tr. Lara Vergnaud). New Directions. 128pp, $14.95.
“‘Like a dog,’ he said, it was as if the shame of it should outlive him.” One guard’s hands on Josef K’s throat, the other plunging the knife into Josef’s heart. And yet, at that time, or rather at some time, the wound was not fatal. And as luck would have it, the same inscrutable government whose judicial system Josef had blindly stumbled through had other bureaucratic wings, including the Ministry of Health, complete with its clinics, charnel houses, and hospitals.
Unfortunately, Josef doesn’t seem to have made it. Perhaps his wounds were too grave for him to have the strength to tell us the rest of his story; maybe he lingered in the Hospital for only a short while. For what little we know, his story ended with the plunge of that knife. And yet, other testimonies bear witness to this institution of physical and mental well-being: chief among them, that of the nameless narrator of Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital.
As is often the case in the current economic climate, there are some problems in the singular hospital system where the narrator finds himself. First and foremost, this hospital doesn’t agree with time or space. Where is it, for starters? Yes, it’s firmly anchored in Bouanani’s native Morocco, as translator Lara Vergnaud points out in her afterword: it is anchored there by words, by substantives that connect it to the very earth and roots upon which it has been built. And yet once one is admitted into this timeless bureaucratic institution, with its “section of infinity, surrounded on all sides by pending files, moldy paperwork, and shelves overflowing with x-rays of lungs,” and its “folders stacked across miles of sky until the next eternity,” one might just as well be lost in the labyrinthine stacks of a Borgesian library where all the books have been checked out. Or, behind the Iron Curtain, in the administrative offices of an unknown future such as the papyrocracy in Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, or the Government Warehouse in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Tale of the Troika.
But this is Morocco, too. This is the centre hospitalier régional Moulay-Youssef in Rabat where Bouanani spent nearly a year when he was stuck there suffering from tuberculosis in 1967-1968; this is also the legendary Berrechid psychiatric hospital, modeled after the 19th-century asylums of Paris, with its 2200 beds; this is the coup-filled secret prisons of Morocco in the 1970s; the linguistic, cultural, and economic prison of Bouanani’s protectorate-era youth; the severe and difficult years of Hassan II’s reign. Once the narrator of C Wing is in his room, or roaming the directionless halls of C Wing itself, he and his revolving cast of fellow patient-inmates are all of these places and none.
The patients of the hospital throw us into further geographical confusion, as Bouanani, through playful onomastics, draws its residents from across the entirety of his native Morocco.
Rover, the young patient in C Wing, he’s the Corsair of Salé, the poverty-stricken city with the rebellious history that lies across the Bou Regreg from Rabat. Yes, Salé, the site of the former Republic of Salé, a city-state of pirates founded in 1624 by the formidable but vicious corsairs known as “the Rovers of Salé.” Argan, “he was originally from Sous,” a region in mid-southern Morocco, but his nickname culturally situates him even more precisely: he’s the representative of the Souss-Massa, a region to the south of Marrakesh dominated by the argainia spinosa, a tree native to Morocco on which grows the fruit used to produce Argan oil. Argan is the olive oil of Morocco, used for everything from dipping bread at breakfast to cosmetics. The Argan is considered a sacred tree by some in Morocco; the oil produced from the fruit is offered with honey in a show of hospitality, and also locally used as a topical treatment for acne and other skin conditions, which suits the hospital’s Argan at the oily age of sixteen. Our nameless narrator, in certain ways an avatar of the author, hails from Bouanani’s home city of Casablanca: “Through the stars and clouds and silences, here I am, once again a prisoner of my childhood street, the Rue de Monastir where rag sellers rubbed elbows with lepers.” Not the coastal-fishing-port-cum-tourist-resort on the coast of Tunisia, as I assumed when I first read L’Hôpital in French, but instead, Monastir, a street and neighborhood in the Al Fida arrondissement of Casablanca where Ahmed Bouanani’s childhood home was located, and a street that is the site of many fragments in Bouanani’s memory. He revisits Monastir once again in his poem “The Illiterate Man,” which can be read in full in The Shutters, translated by Emma Ramadan (New Directions, June 2018):
The thrilled wind suddenly rises up to its knees
extinguishes the fire under the pot,
tumbles down the stairs and
goes to play on the cobblestones of rue de Monastir telling the same
lewd stories to the surrounding windows. My chest full, my eyes on
fire, the houses and the terraces and even the sun, emerged from
an empty silo, break through the ceiling all the way to my bed.
Like Bouanani’s memories of his childhood rue de Monastir, The Hospital is fastened securely to Morocco, even if it floats above it in a haze of time and space. Vergnaud expresses this endemic connection between lexicon and place succinctly: “The taxonomy of flora and fauna, smells and tastes, saints and legends permeates The Hospital,” she writes, meaning of course the one in Bouanani’s novel, and Bouanani’s novel itself. “With amnesia as the disease, and time itself in question, Bouanani delights in naming things—weeping willows and cyclamen flowers, prickly pears and esparto grass, Sidi bel Abbas and the two-horned Alexander—to anchor his character’s memories and dream lives.” Vergnaud’s lexical choices in these instances affect her reader in a slightly different way that do Bouanani’s, as the local implications can’t necessary cross the gap, but in the end, the result is quite similar: these precisely vague choices tie us to a Morocco we can’t reach, much as they connect the in-patients to a Morocco that is fragmentary, inaccessible, and lost in the past.
In the same way that this hospital doesn’t seem to be anywhere specific (or seems to be specifically everywhere), Bouanani leaves no doubt that for its residents, time isn’t as linear and consistent as one would expect. This problem is at the forefront throughout The Hospital. “As we walked, he’d announce the time twice to the groups of invalids slumped on the ground or straddling the low walls. I felt that perhaps this was his reason for being,” the narrator tells us on the opening page. “Not only did he shout out the time, but he also took care to specify the seconds—and thousandths of seconds—to men frozen here for days or weeks and who seemed to harbor all the necessary indifference to the passage of time and changes in the calendar.” If this is truly this nurse’s calling, he gets a forceful helping hand from the narrator along the way. Out of time . . . infinite stretches of silence . . . an interlude of time that prolongs the flight of a fly . . . scarcely an eternity ago. “I have only an approximate idea of time,” explains the narrator of C Wing. The only thing we can count on in the hospital is a constant reminder that it is impossible to keep track.
Lara Vergnaud has made an excellent choice here, faced with a problem that often comes up when translating from French to English. The dilemma, something we rarely seem to consider when reading in English, is this: is it no longer possible to maintain the present tense when translating a novel into English? Does a novel narrated in the present tense always seem stilted and awkward? There’s definitely something to this; the present is grammatically correct, so it is clearly a question of habit and convention. We very infrequently write fiction in the simple present in English anymore, especially in the first person, unless we’re after a certain effect, often one of immediacy or agitation, or to frame a novel that is extremely dialog-heavy. Think back on it—what’s the last great book you read in English that was narrated in the present? From what I’ve noticed, perhaps there is a shift coming, as the most common use of this tense seems to be restricted to young adult literature. It’s not that we can’t use it in literary fiction, it’s just that we rarely do; in French, however, it’s quite common. And that’s what makes Vergnaud’s choice for The Hospital so perfect. The present tense works like a dream within these walls, because time is broken, the patients in C Wing are living in an extremely repetitive eternal present. The future is indistinguishable from the now, and the past isn’t holding together at all, a jumble of flotsam and misdirection. “But I haven’t left the present,” the narrator tells us. And later, “At all hours I am caught between vertigo and delirium. Every day I feel my memory heal over its scabs . . . I feel as if I came here for the day, two weeks, or a century ago, and forgot to leave. Where would I go? To another time, beyond the hospital walls, somewhere that I had a name, an occupation, a reason to exist.”
Inside the hospital, memories don’t function like cinema, but rather like photographs. Many, many photographs, and not necessarily photographs of very good quality, a jumble of snapshots that have been dumped out onto a floor and shuffled into those taken by many others. The residents go about their pointless-but-chaotic days in a childlike state removed from regular, organized continuity. As Anna Della Subin puts it in her introduction, “The dueling systems of time-keeping destabilize any authority time itself might have, that ‘invention of adults’ which twists into absurd shapes in the eternity of the hospital ward.” The overall result of Vergnaud’s decision to preserve the present tense is a continuous, all-encompassing moment fashioned of a never-ending now, a simultaneous and ever-present past, and a future so vague and predictable that it is impossible to distinguish it from where one already is.
Vergnaud’s accurately vague lexical choices are scattered across this extended present, and she has worked wonders in locating the appropriate register. Childlike confusion is accentuated, especially when it comes to the safe anonymity of nicknames. In Bouanani’s French, “Le Litron,” the angry seventeen-year-old who can spit farther than anyone else, is named for the slang for an oversized one-Liter bottle of wine; in Vergnaud’s Hospital, he’s “The Guzzler.” “Le Pet,” the lute-playing troubadour from C Wing who somehow passes from sequestered wing to sequestered wing with the airy freedom of a bad smell drifting from one room to another, his nickname comes straight from the depths of my childhood vocabulary: he is “Fartface,” in all his drifting, musical, and ageless glory. Even our nameless narrator gets in on the fun, his atypical literacy serving as an obvious target: among the patients of C Wing, he’s none other than the “Smart Ass.”
Beyond the flora, fauna, geography, and nicknames, there’s a further dimension to the use of language in The Hospital that has interesting cross-cultural implications. As Anna Della Subin reminds us, Bouanani was criticized by many of his contemporaries for continuing to write in French, the language of the colonizer, even after the Six Day War in 1967. Anticipating this, Bouanani “took a characteristically cryptic, iconoclastic approach. ‘For me, all languages are foreign,’ he would say.” Bouanani’s French, however, has undergone some careful reworking; he has almost unnoticeably inserted regional and dialectal elements from Moroccan into his French. As she points out herself, Vergnaud has gone to great lengths to preserve these tangible lexical traces of Morocco in her translation, but the Moroccan specificity doesn’t end there. Buried in the barrage of baffling imagery and scatological dialog are images and expressions that are also endemic to Morocco, and more specifically, to its Berber-influenced Darija. On a number of occasions, especially in dialog, Bouanani has calqued Moroccan colloquialisms directly into French, detached from their local linguistic context and rewritten in the language of the colonizer: local idioms which are then integrated into the flow of the text like any other image.
When Mohamed El Khadiri translated L’Hôpital from French to Classical Arabic (published in 2014 by DK éditions), a native of Casablanca and a Darija-speaker like Bouanani, he made the decision to translate some of these local and regional expressions into Darija in his Classical Arabic text. El Khadiri felt that by using Darija for these expressions, and more generally in dialog—especially dialog about everyday life, a topic most Moroccans speak about almost exclusively in Darija—that he would “render that aspect of the text purely Moroccan, and accordingly, more accurately reflect Bouanani’s tendencies.” While El Khadiri’s decision perhaps mimics the peculiarity of Bouanani’s linguistic hybridity, he has more recently been asked to consider re-translating L’Hôpital, at least in part, replacing the passages he wrote in Moroccan Arabic with non-region-specific language to allow the novel to be enjoyed by a wider Arabic audience. While he admits that this is possible despite the difficulty of rendering a work so colloquial in its nature in Classical Arabic, he is reluctant to do so. To El Khadiri, Bouanani’s hybrid system produces something that speaks to a hybridity particular to Morocco.
What does this hybridity mean for the reader enjoying Bouanani’s writing in English? Clearly it wasn’t an option for Vergnaud to insert passages in Moroccan Arabic, and without some sort of inappropriate and unthinkable transposition, a substitute language would have lacked all motivation and believability. Given the nature of Bouanani’s imagery and his choice of idiomatic borrowings, the monolingual English text still flows smoothly–pours, really, a river of polluted imagery and emotional detritus–and without obvious interruption. And yet, to a certain extent, traces of Bouanani’s Moroccan calques are still present, whether we recognize them or not, as Vergnaud has preserved the ambiguity of the imagery in many examples. Sure, if a fixed expression has an obvious counterpart in English–one that suits the feel and register of the text–a substitution has been made. But, in fitting with the chaotic beauty of Bouanani’s imagery, when the Moroccan expression has no semantic equivalent, or just as importantly, no semantic equivalent that fits the local register, Vergnaud has preserved the Moroccan expressions (via Bouanani’s own translations to French) in English. “If he ever gets pardoned—you never know—the poor guy’s in for a shock, his chickens will have wisdom teeth and his mule a pair of Siamese twins!” This snippet taken from the torrent of banter between Argan and O.K. provides a delightful example: in France, the expression “quand les poules auront les dents” [when chickens have teeth] is akin to our English expression “when pigs fly,” both of them conveying the impossibility of something happening. In Morocco, this French formulation is in current usage as well, although the teeth in question are more specifically wisdom teeth. What’s more, there’s a second expression meaning roughly the same thing in Morocco, and in this passage, Bouanani has tacked the two together, as it is also extremely unlikely for a mule to give birth to twins, conjoined or otherwise. By inserting Moroccan expressions into his French (alongside the flood of endemic flora, fauna, etc.), Bouanani has stretched the lexical and semantic possibilities of the French language, forcing it to absorb new material specific to his native region (and that of the hospital). And by preserving these foreign incursions in her English translation, however unusual some of them might seem, Vergnaud has in turn augmented the possibilities of our English language, lending us certain Moroccan ways of seeing, feeling, and understanding.
In some cases, she has made slight modifications to these calqued expressions, but the resulting imagery is incontestably appropriate: for instance, El Khadiri suggests that another Moroccan expression Bouanani has embedded in his French, “un pet moins le quart” (literally, “a quarter to a fart”), is used in Morocco to denote someone or something pointless or without value. The English syntax of the literal translation would have made for a difficult and puzzling sentence, whereas Vergnaud’s reworked expression, “a fart in a windstorm,” matches lexical similarity with improved semantic accessibility. The end result, in English, is a combination of the inventive lexical boldness of both Bouanani and Vergnaud, and the experience of reading The Hospital in English is much richer for both of their efforts.
Of course, one of the difficulties with these translated and embedded expressions lies in the fact that in such a text, they can be nearly impossible to pick out of the other equally strange metaphorical imagery, especially when the translator is not a native Darija speaker. Emma Ramadan found similar problems in translating Bouanani’s poetry collected in The Shutters. When images begin to repeat from one poem to the next, such as “giants wearing glasses,” “morning bicyclists,” or “ringed mirrors,” this can trigger a panicked assumption on the part of a translator that there must be some broader meaning. Hidden meaning or not, in such cases the best course, whether it is a calqued expression or just imaginative imagery, is to preserve the opacity of the phrase. If a bit more hidden Morocco comes to inhabit the English of the translation because of a lost or unknown expression, all the better.
I was first introduced to Bouanani’s work during a week-long translator’s residency in the south of France in 2012, which took place in and around an eighth-century monastery. During one of the first workshops of the residency, Mo El Khadiri spoke to us on the difficulties of translating L’Hôpital into standard Arabic. Later that week, Robyn Creswell and Kenza Sefrioui introduced us to the Souffles/Anfas journals, which had included Bouanani’s writing alongside work by the likes of Abdellatif Laâbi and Tahar Ben Jelloun. And finally, in the dark vault of the monastery, writer and translator Omar Berrada introduced us to Bouanani’s work as a filmmaker, screening Bouanani’s cinema-poem 6 / 12 (1968). While plenty of other writers and artists entered the conversation during our stay, the take-away for many of us was quite clear: Bouanani’s writing, some of which was then being prepared for new editions in France or translated into Arabic, had to be translated into English. Lara Vergnaud promptly opened discussions about translating L’Hôpital, and not long after, through the same network of interested parties, Emma Ramadan set to work on a collection of the poetry. I read L’Hôpital that same summer, and I’ve been looking forward to the possibility of recommending The Hospital to English readers ever since. It was presented to us with such passion and enthusiasm, by El Khadiri, Berrada, and others, that we knew it was only a matter of time. Recently, I asked Omar Berrada to reflect on what the discovery of this work had meant to him at the time, in hopes of passing on a bit of the passion we encountered during that residency. He offered this:
Encountering L’Hôpital circa 2010 was a shock. It masterfully gives form to a historical moment: that of a present in ruins in the aftermath of colonization, where citizens are like a community of the living-dead caught in a horizonless limbo in which neither reality nor memory can be trusted. On a more existential front, I was shaking with anger. I was feeling that my generation had been robbed of a hero—an artist who made no concessions, be it on the political or the aesthetic front. How could I have grown up in 1980s and 90s Morocco without having known of Bouanani? Why had he withdrawn from the scene? Why was he made silent? Why had his works disappeared from the shelves of bookstores and libraries? How many essential voices are similarly stuck in the purgatories of our cultural infrastructure? I found solace in the thought that Bouanani’s oeuvre did not so much belong to the past as it belonged to the future, and proceeded, with like-minded friends and allies, to plot for its revival.
Much as C Wing’s patients live and die between the hospital’s walls but outside of the flow of “ordinary” time, Bouanani’s work has a timeless urgency to it, the kind of timeless frustration that can only come from a specific time and place. And like The Trial or the great Eastern Bloc science-fiction of the 1960s and 70s or other great dystopian novels of the past, the human rage, frustration, and isolation it expresses is equally poignant in past, present, and future. Fortunately, the future-past of Smart Ass, the Guzzler, Fart-Face and co. has finally arrived for English readers.
Chris Clarke lives in spitting distance of New York City. His translations include work by Raymond Queneau (New Directions), Pierre Mac Orlan (Wakefield Press), and by and François Caradec (forthcoming, MIT Press). He received a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant in 2016 for his translation of Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives (Wakefield Press), and his translation of Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth (NYRB Classics) was shortlisted for the 2016 French-American Foundation Translation Prize. Chris is a PhD candidate in French at the City University of New York.
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