Dispatches from C Wing: On Ahmed Bouanani’s ‘The Hospital’


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.

Baby and the Book: On Rivka Galchen’s ‘Little Labors’

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“Literature has more dogs than babies,” Rivka Galchen writes in Little Labors, “and also more abortions.”

Put like that, the observation is startling. And though the babies are definitely out there — Galchen finds them in Beloved, The Millstone, A Personal Matter, The Fifth Child, and Dept. of Speculation for starters — the search seems to leave her (playfully) grasping at straws. Perhaps Frankenstein’s monster is her favorite fictional baby, Galchen cheekily suggests. Perhaps Rumpelstiltskin is the metaphoric firstborn of the fairy tale, and his hijinks are merely sad attempts to gain his surrogate mother’s attention.

From my own bookshelf I’ll add to the list Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, a vicious and spry chronicle of her daughter’s first year. Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” features a baby of sorts. (Though one centimeter over is “Hills like White Elephants,” in which there will soon be an abortion.) Trials of parenting, once a child has achieved a certain age, give us highs of tenderness and brushstrokes of true cruelty. See Mrs. Ramsey winding her shawl around a fright-giving pig skull in To the Lighthouse; or Jason’s attempts to corral his mutinous niece in The Sound and the Fury.

And yet between courtship and marriage, or between the searchings of early adulthood and the intrigues of family life, literature seems to draw a two-year blank. A survey of 1,000 novels might produce nuanced portraits of extramarital affairs, or descriptions of all-night benders, but scant answer to the questions: Where do people come from? Under what circumstances are we born?

Why the omission?

Galchen isn’t sure. Thankfully not. Her investigations shoot off from her subject like finely-pointed spokes from a hub. The book’s split-up structure fits her purpose well. On the one hand you can occasionally imagine these short chapters as the immediate and authentic jotting-downs of a new mother reporting from the front. (For instance, Galchen on iPhone videos of her daughter, a.k.a. the puma: “footage of the puma has the unfortunate quality of making it seem as if the puma has passed away and the watcher, me, is condemned to replaying the same scene again and again and again.”) On the other hand, the book’s loose form also gives room to Galchen’s commendable analytical mind. Here, as in her novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, she is the type of writer who can show you in an outstretched arm one view of a sphere, then spin her subject in hand, and show you something quite different.

Unifying these chapters is a low-wattage but steadily glowing anxiety: that babies are not a subject of literature because babies are not interesting. To their parents and families in real life, yes, but not in general, not as a surface that will for the writer yield fruitful depths. Before she was a mother herself, Galchen confesses a nose-in-the-air dismissiveness toward a subject so patently and traditionally female. And her aloofness, she admits, didn’t stop at just babies: the authors she liked were all men (including Denis Johnson, whom she mistook for a French woman during an attempt to diversify her reading.) Two people with otherwise equal qualities would differentiate by gender: the man inevitably more magnetic in the pair. As for babies? The way Galchen tells it, you’d think it a prerequisite of youthful intellectualism to fall asleep at the mere mention of the word: God help you if you cared to go into particulars. Or put those particulars into writing.

But Galchen knows that’s not the whole story. Only recently have women begun writing with equal output of men, and with equal education to back them up. Only very recently have writers who are also women and also mothers had any significant spousal or institutional support to continue their work with children at home. Karl Ove Knausgård, for instance, whose influence is apparent in passages, manages to write about children’s birthday parties, his wife’s labor, a child’s real-time soiling of a diaper, in a way that makes those moments tremble with cosmic meaning. (Of course in Knausgård everything trembles with cosmic meaning.) Perhaps, though, the subject matter isn’t really the problem. Perhaps the problem is that while you are taking care of a baby you often don’t have time to write about taking care of a baby. Or as Galchen describes life with a newborn:

The world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that the puma made me again more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making me into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.

And it isn’t just time that’s the problem. Despite the fertile ground that Galchen describes — and which other new parents must certainly feel — it seems remarkably difficult to see past the “dull” label that has been affixed to infant heads. And no wonder, given a literary tradition in which an erection can boast an established history of metaphoric usage, while a menstrual cycle, for instance — with exceptions such as in Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love — is a detail that writers habitually leave out with trips to the bathroom and the buzzing of morning alarms.

Galchen, though, breathes decided life into her topic. And her writing is so good that her observations double as arguments for her choice of subject. Take, for example, this passage on a baby’s seemingly metaphysical essence:

We know babies are the only ones among us in alliance with time. They are the only incontestable assessors to power, or, at least, they are immeasurably more well-placed than their elder co-unequals. The way a baby, in a stroller, briefly resembles a fat potentate, for a moment unlovable, has something in it of the premonition. Even as to see a baby raise its chubby hand — to bow down before that random emperor can feel very right.

Or consider this, a comment on a baby’s loss of intrigue with the acquisition of language:

It’s as if babies don’t grow larger but instead smaller, at least in our perception. It’s striking that in the canonical Gospels, we meet Jesus as a baby and as an adult, but as a child and teenager, he is unserviceable.

There are a few places in this book where the writing does make a dangerous shift from brightly analytical to willfully cryptic (e.g., an unnecessarily complex description of a movie poster and its surrounding geography.) But that is rare. In Little Labors Galchen is recognizably the writer of the masterful short story, “The Lost Order.” Language like “random emperor” and “unserviceable” are the brilliant norm.

In interviews, Galchen has cited Sei Shōnagon’s 11th-century The Pillow Book as an influence for her work’s fragmented and miscellanea-driven structure. Shōnagon’s text gets room here, in summary form, if not thanks to what it offers on motherhood than as good evidence for the artistic worth of daily domestic life. (If an empresses’s court indeed counts as daily domestic life.) But Little Labors might be too tightly wrought, too self-conscious to really call back the flowing, pure diary feel of that book. Observations here more frequently have the ring of Susan Sontag or William Vollmann than dashed-off notes-to-self. And even the vivid glimpses of quotidian life with a child — the comments provoked by a trendy orange snowsuit, the comical tribulations involved in obtaining a passport photo for an infant, a child’s eerily suspicious fall among playmates — give the cumulative effect of toes cautiously dipped into water. Does this count as literature? the book seems to be asking itself. And this?

The result is that this quietly revolutionary little book is extremely difficult to qualify. I found myself thinking of it as a metanarrative on the genre of parenting novels: a genre, in other words, that does not yet fully exist. That is not Galchen’s fault; nor does it detract from the book. The way she writes, you feel she is onto something, as if she were peering down a long pathway of New Yorker issues to a literature ahead.

Little Labors ends as inconspicuously as it began. The child’s grandmother totes her to a senior dinner at their synagogue, where the child charms the crowd, “carrying her winter pants here and there, offering them to diners, rescinding the offer.” Couldn’t you charge $1,000 a day to bring a baby to a nursing home? the grandmother jokes afterwards. Couldn’t a family charge 20 bucks an hour to babysitters, adds the father, for the privilege of being with the baby? “Everything they said was true,” Galchen concludes, “and yet also, we know, not the case.”

Given what’s come before, it’s nearly impossible not to read this final note as a mordant analogy to the ambivalent place that the baby occupies in literature at large. After all, if novels are investigations into the workings of human existence — shouldn’t a baby, and a baby’s arrival, provide a useful key? Isn’t a baby a good place to start? In life, in literature, to borrow Galchen’s phrase, a baby should be a goldmine. And yet we know it is not the case.