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Guantánamo Diary, Lurid & Cute and The Door

Gitmo stories, fantastical fiction and a contemporary classic

By Mark Diston, 7 Feb 2015

Page File El Reg bookworm Mark Diston looks at the latest literary releases and weaves his way through the distressing story of ongoing Gitmo inmate Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Firmly in the realm of fiction, Adam Thirlwell's latest proves to be a unique and stylish work. The reissue of a Magda Szabó classic is also revisited and remains edgy and enduring read.

Guantánamo Diary

Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay detention camp for the last dozen years. Born in Mauritania and having trained at an Al-Quaeda training camp in Afghanistan in 1990, “when America was more or less our ally”, he leaves the organisation after the fall of the Communist government in Kabul, disillusioned by the ensuing infighting.

Sometime around 1999 he advises three men he meets briefly not to travel to Afghanistan via Chechnya, as he had heard that the Georgians were arresting Muslim men passing through their country. Two of the men he met were later involved in the September 11th attacks. Slahi himself was arrested 18 days later as he attempted to visit his family.

The Senegalese and Mauritanian police have nothing on him, but nonetheless a few months later he is “renditioned” to Jordan at the behest of the US government. He has not been charged and is still in custody.

Guantánamo Diary book cover

Mohamedou’s story was written in English, his fourth language, which he picked up in jail, so it is full of US neologisms such as, “I was like, what the heck” and “Freakin'”. Much of the text has been redacted by the US authorities; real names have been removed and alleged abuses running to sentences and sometimes entire pages have also been blacked out.

Guantánamo Diary is written in a fresh international style: German and Arabic proverbs sit alongside US slang, The Koran, Star Wars and Black Hawk Down. American Intelligence would seem to be a misnomer: “I just wished the agencies would hire smart people”, Mohamedou writes. He tells his captors, “You are holding me because your country is strong enough to be unjust, and it’s not the first time you’ve kidnapped Africans and enslaved them”.

His schoolboy-esque tormentors reply: “So why do you keep being a pussy?” “Because he is gay”. The repetition of the torture and abuse scenes, redacted or inferred ,are a strain to read, but there are a few ironic Orwellian interludes, such the sign on the wall which reads “Honor bound to defend freedom”. And this brilliant dialogue:

Interrogator: “I know you are innocent” Detainee: “I’d rather be a criminal and sat at home with the kids”

...and the baddest interrogator who boasts: “My wife calls me [an] asshole”.

Despite having lived in Germany and Canada, Slahi experiences moments of extreme culture shock. He observes: “One of the punishments of their civilisation is that Americans are addicted to video games” and asks his guard, who is browsing Men’s Fitness, “Is that a homosexual magazine?”

Somewhat inevitably, following years of incarceration, Slahi finds himself getting philosophical. “Crime is something relative, it’s something the government defines and redefines whenever it pleases”.

Guantánamo Diary is a brilliant book and testament to the humanity and struggle of its author. It is tragic, sickening, yet life affirming at the same time. Slahi says he bears no ill-will to his captors, his interrogators seem poorly briefed and his guards mostly poor and ignorant. Yet Slahi also recognises those who have shown him humanity and kindness throughout his ordeal. This is an impressive and moving book; I look forward to Mohamedou Ould Slahi being able to complete an uncensored version from beyond Guantánamo.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantánamo Diary book coverAuthor Mohamedou Ould Slahi
Title Guantánamo Diary
Publisher Canongate Books
Price £10 (Hardback), £7.99 (eBook)
More info Publication web site

Lurid & Cute

Adam Thirlwell would seem to be the perpetually youthful winner of two Granta young novelist awards a decade apart. Lurid & Cute is his fifth book and takes place in the suburbs of a western city. It is the story of an anonymous, unemployed Jewish youth, described as a “prodigy” who ostensibly leads a sheltered life:

“The juggernaut of life was not parked heavily on our hero’s lawn” but our protagonist seems beset by anxiety: “I live at home with my mother and father and wife and feel as if I am in constant pain”.

The narrator seems to lead a dissipated and, at times, exalted existence. “A brand of butterfly I thought was extinct seemed to shudder past on a sweltering breeze… All the thundercats and Griffons I had never believed in were yawning and stretching their unwashed wings in the empty air,” he observes. Undoubtedly, Adam Thirlwell has his own style and a beautiful turn of phrase.

Lurid & Cute takes place in no specified location but has a mid-Atlantic dialect that makes it reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s The Favourite Game, another novel featuring a nice Jewish boy coming of age and falling apart in a heady mix of sex, surrealism and elevated prose.

Adam Thirlwell, Lurid & Cute book cover

There is also more than a touch of the Woody Allen in this work. “My problems are psychosomatic, I once said to Candy – 'Psychosemitic', added Candy”. The narrator’s friend Hiro, is a brilliantly drawn idiot savant: “Energetic as a dot matrix printer… He could make a bingo hall… seem overgrown with unbelievable orchids”.

Hiro is the catalyst for mayhem, dispensing his own prescription drugs and talking his friends into acts of crime and decadence. “That’s what happens when you hang out with someone way ditzier than Buddha. It destroys all your moral faith.”

The hero’s increasingly reckless existence seems bound to end in disaster and, of course, does. The pets die, the girls leave. “Romy was gone, for ever, the way a marble statue might have been lost in more classical times… just tipped overboard from a trireme in the process of a shipjacking by a bored and overworked Viking”.

Yet even when everything turns to shit, our narrator maintains an ironic and detached voice: “Lurid is the best the cute can do in imagining such suffering” while “Outside the fascists are enjoying a boom and everyone hates everyone”. With a single narrator and a small cast, Adam Thirlwell’s seemingly autistic stream-of-consciousness delivery works really well. The poetic flights are impressive and intense, yet Thirlwell never strays far from the story in hand.

Lurid & Cute is a compelling and stylistically original work that stands out from the general dross of mainstream English literature. Definitely more lurid than cute, Adam Thirlwell is among the most interesting voices to have emerged in British fiction so far this century. This one is for lovers of language, fans of the best UK experimental fiction – the likes of David Mitchell and China Mieville – and readers who enjoy quality, quirky modern prose to digest.

Adam Thirlwell, Lurid & Cute book coverAuthor Adam Thirlwell
Title Lurid & Cute
Publisher Jonathan Cape
Price £16.99 (Hardback), £9.98 (eBook)
More info Publication web site

The Door

Magda Szabó is a major Hungarian novelist who died in 2007. The Door is one of her most acclaimed works and this fine translation by Len Rix with a new introduction by Ali Smith has just been reissued by NYRB Classics, finally bringing it to the attention of North American readers. As Ms. Smith says, only three per cent of books that English readers consume are translated works which means there are many foreign language gems awaiting discovery.

The Door is such a work. It is ostensibly the story of two women – an autobiographical narrator hires a cleaning lady called Emerence, who is eccentric to say the least. The novel begins with a recurring nightmare of a door which the narrator fails to open. The writer then takes us back more than twenty years to her first meeting with Emerence, a woman who chooses her employers with care.

The “lady writer” craves intimacy with Emerence, but her initial advances are repulsed. Emerence’s biography appears piecemeal and, like many contemporary Central European twentieth century lives, is formed by the political and military catastrophes of the time. There is also apparently much tragedy in her past – twin siblings killed by lightning and a mother who then throws herself down a well.

Magda Szabó, The Door book cover

Emerence is a mystic without religion who has the gift of second sight – she can read minds and foretell the future. She lives in a house where the shutters are always closed and where no-one else is allowed to enter. The narrator pieces together Emerence’s past – tales of heroism, altruism, death and bad love which, together, have made her the person she is.

On one level this is a fabulously realised biography of a fantastical heroine, but given the author’s own history of being silenced by Stalinists and the date of publication in 1987, one can read many interpretations of contemporary events into The Door.

The narrator suspects Emerence of stealing from Jews in 1944, whereas the truth is that she sheltered them and adopted a Jewish child. She also shelters wounded German and Russian soldiers.

The narrator and her partner adopt a stray puppy, who becomes more Emerence’s pet than theirs. Eventually Emerence and her employers become close, the lady writer is finally admitted behind the door and is named in her servant’s will.

As the hardworking, independent and altruistic woman becomes ill, the narrator and neighbours are forced to break into Emerence’s redoubt to save her from death. The final part of the book details Emerence’s decline and demise and the void of guilty feelings she leaves behind.

“I understand our recent history as I never had before” says the author towards the end of her book. Mostly, this book is about how events shape personality. Both Emerence and the “lady writer” are moulded by war, death and totalitarianism. It becomes apparent that Emerence’s life is a heroic endeavour against the odds and as soon as she admits the lady writer into her life, her betrayal and the author’s subsequent remorse seem inevitable.

The Door is a fine novel; on a personal level it is a rather picaresque tale of a strange friendship. Yet the novel works on a wider scale as an epic struggle of an individual against circumstance. This is a book which should appeal to all lovers of fine modern literature. ®

Magda Szabó, The Door book coverAuthor Magda Szabó
Title The Door
Publisher Vintage (UK), NYRB Classics (US)
Price £8.99 (Hardback), £6.49 (eBook)
More info Publication web site (UK) and reissue web site (US)

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