Dorothea Dieckmann’s “Guantanamo”

Reviewed by Christopher Cox

Image of Dorothea Dieckmann’s “Guantanamo”

The United States has secret prisons spread throughout the world and a detention facility at a military base in Cuba specifically created to extract information from its inmates, most of whom are never charged with a crime. Faced with this news, Dorothea Dieckmann avoids high-minded rhetoric and angry condemnations (unlikely to be heard by the American government in any case, and none-too-rare as well) in favor of a short but potent novel that explores what imprisonment in this system does to one innocent man.

When Guantanamo was first published in Germany in 2004, information about extraordinary rendition and the detention and interrogation camps at Guantanamo Bay was even harder to come by than it is now. Still Dieckmann, who works as an essayist and literary critic in addition to writing novels, was able to collect countless details about the running of the prison, from the dimensions of the cells to the brutal procedures for conducting interrogations, in order to describe the day-to-day life of one of the inmates, a twenty-year-old German named Rashid. But the author is only incidentally concerned with reporting on the conditions at Gitmo—she mainly wants to take us deep into Rashid's head, to trap us within his own confused, scared, and often delirious field of vision. Translator Tim Mohr does a good job of capturing Dieckmann's headlong rush of sentences, the schizophrenia of Rashid's feverish thoughts. The reader never fully understands how Rashid gets from a vacation visiting relatives in India to the scene of his arrest at an anti-American rally in Pakistan. But then again, neither does Rashid. In one interrogation, he attempts to describe everyone at the rally "despite the fact that he wasn't sure anymore which ones were real." The claustrophobic narrative that emerges, cycling in and out of flashbacks and fantasies, has a visceral power.

Her title may have been chosen to provoke, but Dieckmann studiously dodges the pitfalls that might have made Rashid's story too demonstrative or tidy: despite an increased exposure to Islam in the camp (he grew up secular), he doesn't vow to join the jihad. He's not radicalized; he's beaten down. And while his German past may be idealized (a flashback has him strolling along the street in a Sesame Street Hamburg: "There's the bakery, Frau Roehlke waves from behind the shop window"), the Americans who have imprisoned him are not in turn demonized. Indeed, it's not the memory of the smiling Frau that he returns to for comfort at the book's end, but a welcoming table at the "little McDonald's on the corner of Davidstrasse and Friedrichstrasse in Hamburg." Never before has the Golden Arches sounded so quaint.

Dieckmann is particularly good at dramatizing the role that language, and control of language, plays in the war on terror—a war in which there is a world of difference between being labeled an enemy combatant and a prisoner-of-war. She frequently adopts the official language of the camps, the military-speak that appears in English in the original narrative and in every chapter heading. This is language as a tool of oppression. Rashid can never figure out exactly the right thing to tell his interrogators: "He worries about them—about the words he says—and about the possibility that they will come back to him altered, changed into something else, something dangerous." But at the same time, words offer Rashid what little solace he finds in Guantanamo: one of his most prized possessions is a dictionary given to him for good behavior. Although Dieckmann stops short of saying it, the implication is that language—writers even—might eventually make it more difficult for places like Guantanamo to exist at all. "A lot of things are outside, far removed," she writes, "but the words still make their way into the prison."

Guantanamo was a success in Germany, owing in part to the scandal there over the similar treatment of Khaled el-Masri, a German who was captured by while vacationing in Macedonia and allegedly tortured in a CIA prison in Afghanistan (just last month the Supreme Court declined to hear el-Masri's case). But whereas el-Masri was eventually released, there is no such end in sight for Rashid. Dieckmann, perhaps unavoidably, opens her book with a quotation from Kafka. But the authorities in Kafka, no matter how malign, always seemed to be working toward some defined, if inscrutable, end. After months and months spent at Guantanamo, Rashid realizes at the end that "it wasn't anybody's job to release prisoners—that there was no plan, not even a secret one."

Christopher Cox is associate editor of The Paris Review.