Once, I had to go to the hospital. There was no reason to be afraid. The procedure was, at least for the doctors, routine. The chance of death was slim to none. Driving on the highway, for instance, just to arrive at the medical complex, had incurred about the same risk of serious injury. It was a pretty, sunny day in July. The doors were massive glass, revolving at a slow speed. I approached them willingly, but right before crossing through, I hesitated, overcome by sudden fear: I had the feeling that once I went into the hospital, I wouldn’t come out again.
I did—happily. Though it’s likely others who entered that day never would. That isn’t surprising. It’s very common to die in a hospital, so much so that the place has absorbed into itself the roles and artistic possibilities of the death-bed room, the graveyard, the pastoral house of worship. The religious leaders who once stood at the threshold between life and death are often replaced by a nurse, a doctor—caring, attentive, or sardonic, who knows?—hovering over a solitary patient and presiding over the mystery.
When the narrator of Ahmed Bouanani’s incantatory novel reaches the gates of the unnamed hospital, he experiences no immediate sense of foreboding, though the unforgettable and haunting first lines make it clear that he has strolled into the end of his life:
When I walked through the large iron gate of the hospital, I must have still been alive. At least that’s what I believed since I could smell on my skin the scents of a city that I would never see again.
Casually, he adds his name to a “yellow sheet already covered with flyspecks” and says “thank you four or five times to heads nodding behind screens in tiny, enclosed spaces where decades of paperwork and x-ray films were piling up on dusty shelves.” He follows a nurse deeper through the halls to C Wing, a place where time has seemingly come to a standstill, where the outside world ceases to matter, and where illness is a perpetual state, with no instances of or real hope for recovery.
The patient—suffering from an unnamed illness—becomes trapped in a bewildering twilight between life and death. The hospital is a haunted shadow world where memory struggles for a breath of air, where the grotesque facts of the outside country are gone over at leisure. Indignities and past sufferings (long-ago familial deaths, a childhood friend left asleep under a streetlamp, the violent and petty offenses of self-proclaimed criminals) are felt again, perhaps made worse by the removal: the ability to sit and think over events with no further possibility of investigation, action, or intervention.
Stasis is the rule here—for character and reader both. In The Hospital, there is no emphasis on the “and then…” of traditional narrative. There is no real story—which might sound like a critique but in fact is a kind of writing that can be just as cogent and enjoyable as the other, more plot-based or emotionally arcing sort, when the bursts of dialogue, bits of mordant wisdom, and small occurrences are done as well as they are done here. (Praise must go in part to Lara Vergnaud’s eloquent translation.) Take, for instance, the shadows of hunched patients like Easter Island giants, the mind like a “wild horse imprisoned in a serene body,” or this portrayal of pervasive mortality:
I rub shoulders with death every day now, that’s why I no longer fear him. I see him in my companions’ eyes, dressed like them in squalid blue pajamas, smoking crappy tobacco like everyone else, shooting the shit while waiting for dusk. He doesn’t hide in the dark corners, behind low walls, under beds, in humid, stinking latrines, he joins us at the dinner table, he laughs when we laugh, he shares our madness, then he leads us to our beds the same way you’d lead a mischievous child who refuses to go to sleep.
In some respects, Bouanani’s character is not unlike Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp (who, in The Magic Mountain, enters a sanatorium intending a three-week visit and stays for seven years) for the slow and imagistic ways he lives beside his own death, and in a place where health is the ostensible but seemingly impossible aim. The character also shares with Castorp a richness in metaphoric layering, for he, Bouanani’s patient, is not only an accentuation of the mortal human but also a specific representative of his country at a very particular moment. As Anna Della Subin’s introduction helpfully describes, Bouanani (who died in 2011) was writing during a politically fraught time in Morocco, when, in an overzealous attempt to erase a legacy of colonization, artists like Bouanani were subjected to extreme censorship and threats. He was criticized for writing in French, forced to work under the watchful eye of the government, and fated to make films that were often immediately banned. As if that wasn’t enough, he also composed while struggling against an international culture that, in his view, demeaned the history of Arabic storytelling.
The hospital, then, becomes not only a state of mortal purgatory but also the intellectual and economic purgatory of a stuck generation. “Are we really a people?” asks one withered patient, known only by his nickname, Fartface. “Think about it. We were born with our right hands outstretched, begging in our blood…Too much servitude has made us forget what dignity, generosity, and tolerance truly are.” Another character’s self-description sounds doubly of metaphysical plight, and the shared providence of Morocco’s lost age of artists and thinkers:
I’m in between jobs, sir. Like everyone. My life is temporary, my hopes are temporary, my sleep and my dreams are temporary. I am temporarily counting a lot on the future, and here, look, sir, I have a temporary work certificate for when I’ll be temporarily well.
Not everything in Bouanani’s novel is so strikingly clear. There are flights of fancy and symbolic reaches in The Hospital (for instance, the hospital’s lush interior garden, the characters living and not living who haunt the patient, one with an axe) that carry vague and fairly muted meanings. Still, the central conceit of Bouanani’s novel is powerful and lucid, and the trim novel leaves a lasting impression. You enter the hospital; you lose yourself in its labyrinth, its rhythms, its silence like “the silence of a jar.” Sometimes you re-emerge and sometimes you don’t (“The world doesn’t care,” writes Bouanani, with bite, “but your mother does”). In the end, though, the difference was always overpronounced: You were just as mortal outside the hospital as inside, just as trapped. The mysteries that exist in the hospital—that peculiar factory where the living often become the dead—exist just as much beyond the iron gates. All true. All seemingly obvious. But often it takes an author like Bouanani to tap our arm and lead the way into an intense reminder.