Guantanamo: A Novel

Issue section: 
(327)

Dorothea Dieckmann, Duckworth Overlook, £8.99

The terror and incipient madness felt by all those who have been whisked from normality to the US offshore torture camp at Guantanamo Bay are captured from the opening sentence of this extraordinary book.

Rashid, son of an Indian Muslim father and a German Protestant mother, was raised in Germany. After his grandmother dies, he travels to India where he meets an Afghan man who persuades him to travel to Peshawar. He finds himself on an anti-US demo, and then is arrested, handed over to US forces and transported to Cuba.

How Rashid's nightmare began is slowly revealed in feverish flashbacks. While his mind seeks protection from the torture by drifting into dreamlike psychotic delusions, he desperately tries to focus on how and why he is in Guantanamo. The writing is so powerful that you are disturbingly drawn into his trancelike world.

The six scenes of the book capture the experience of caged incarceration and torture that most of us would rather not contemplate - the tick-tock slowness, the paralysing dread, the systematic infliction of pain to break the psyche, the endless isolation and uncertainty, the manic panic, the depression and resignation. Somehow Dieckmann describes this without a drop of sentimentality or a superfluous adjective.

At first Rashid thinks he can end the torture by proving his innocence - that he was simply on holiday in Pakistan and is not a devout Muslim. As the sensory deprivation and beatings dissolve his identity, he tells his interrogators what he thinks they want to hear - that he was on jihad and planning to attack Americans - and begins to take on his fictitious persona, including a fascination with Islam and the call to prayer.

The book ends abruptly, with Rashid still clinging to sanity amid ubiquitous madness. The abruptness rams home the facts that the routinised horror for the prisoners Rashid represents is continuing day after interminable day, with no end in sight.

Although the book is a powerful indictment of the US's shameful programme of renditions, secret detention and torture in its "war on terror", I'm not sure it quite works as a novel. The claustrophobic reality Dieckmann explores is by necessity devoid of human choice or dilemma - the elements that normally drive a novel forward. Here the sole character has no choice, can make no decision, faces no quandary. As a result, the book is entirely about circumstance, which makes it slightly monotonous (although never boring).

I suspect other readers may disagree - and perhaps I should make it clear that I spend much of my working life reading about people suffering abuse in prisons and elsewhere, and so generally like my novels to take me to places less full of pain.