Ahmed Bouanani’s The Hospital, translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud, is forthcoming from New Directions. Based on the author’s own experiences as a tuberculosis patient, the novel depicts a mysterious, nightmarish hospital that transforms into an eerie, metaphorical space as the narrator has flashes of childhood memories and fantasies of resurrection.
Until now I haven’t had the chance to describe the hospital. I told myself I have plenty of time, it’s not a place you figure out at first glance. To trace its outlines with even the roughest precision, I would need to find out what’s beyond the trees, beyond our wing; the wings themselves (how many are there?) loom in a place, which, day by day, seems indefinite to me, and intangible. I told myself space is distorting in my mind because my eyes are no longer seeing in the same way. Meaning the iron gate of the main entrance was once visible at the end of the central path, ancient oak trees planted on both sides. Now, I sometimes find myself searching for it for a long time, from whatever spot I find myself in, as if distance was secretly stretching out during the night. Rover, who’s been here so long that he’s incapable of providing an exact date, only knows the A and B wings that neighbor our own. The idea of going off to explore never occurred to him. “What’s the point? There are patients everywhere, who look like every other patient, who hope to one day get better and rejoin their loved ones beyond these damned high walls, but there it is, death is at the end of every road, ready to gobble us up like common gnats!” Without knowing why, I convinced myself that the hospital is a trompe l’oeil, and this strange and inexplicable impression, born of a nightmare or a delirium, hasn’t left me since. But each time that this idea becomes stubborn and intolerable in its absurdity, I chase it away with an avalanche of logical reasoning: “So what? instead of healing your sad little rotting body, you’re gonna abandon ship! One of these days, you’ll wake up with your brain turned completely upside down and good-bye-good-night everyone, you’ll go keep the jackals company, alongside the cannibals and all the other miserable devils slobbering, begging, and screaming like damned, enslaved men beaten down with clubs!”
“Okay, okay,” I tell myself, “better to die on the spot than go off the rails, but come on, this garden?”
“Well all this vegetation around us! A caprice of a gardener out of his mind, untroubled by esthetics or harmony, who, on a whim of his imagination, planted an ensemble of plants that are completely unalike. Take a look, I’m not just talking about oaks, pines, palms, or harmless poplars. There are also calabash, rubber, sumac, jackfruit, manchineel, sequoia, and baobab trees and god knows what else! Not to mention the thousands of exotic flowers that have no business in a hospital. And more incredible still, don’t you hear the countless birds at night, the beating of wings rattling the air above our heads? Or since (but since when?) my ears no longer capture anything but silence, a vague buzzing of insects. Apparently streptomycin turns you deaf, in the long run.”
“Well, better deaf than dead!”
However hard I concentrate, all I can hear is the faraway murmur of a town, the farther still murmur of an ocean. A town turned hostile, indifferent; as for the ocean, at high tide its heady fragrance reaches all the way to wing C. “Today, the waves are tossing back their algae,” announces Guzzler as he smells the air. “The beach is a dumping ground, where you can find dead starfish, shells, sometimes jellyfish, there’ll probably be a magnificent drowned body on the sand tonight!” What an odd fellow, I think. When Guzzler’s not with his band, he’s a fragile, pitiful teenager, a poor bastard who has never, I’m sure of it, experienced, except in his imagination, any exploits in no-man’s-land. He leans against one of the veranda walls, spits forcefully, with bitterness. “Guys like us don’t get better! No way, guys like us do not get better. They resuscitate our small, miserable spark of life, just enough so that people don’t mistake us for human beings in our own right. They tell us, hey, see you next time, we go back to our daily bullshit, we try to return to the thick of things, we slip, we fall flat on our faces on the pavement, it’s always too late to start living, always . . . .” I stand up. I feel like walking. Guzzler asks me for a cigarette. “You’re right to get going,” he tells me. “When I’m depressed, I’m contagious.” I hand over my packet of Casa Sport Olympics, he gives it a disappointed look, scowls: “No thanks, I don’t smoke butts!” He rolls downs one of his socks, takes out a packet of Marlboros. He looks at me and starts to chuckle for no reason. “Do you know why I’m laughing?”
“It’s a completely idiotic memory. This quack came to our neighborhood once to sell some pills, pills that, according to him, could heal every ailment, especially impotence. A single pill, he used to say, could give a dead man a hard-on for twenty-four hours, and he’d flex his arm up to the elbow. So, one time, we pushed him into a corner and forced him to swallow every one of his pills. To this day, he must be pissing blood from all the erections!” Then he adds while lighting his cigarette: “We should stuff all these bullshit shots up the doctor’s ass, we’ll see if he’s capable of walking after that!” I move away. Vertigo takes me. I shouldn’t stay in the sun. I walk back the way I came. Guzzler is sniffing something blackish wrapped in a piece of paper.
“It’s junk,” he announces with the tone of a connoisseur. “It’s worth nothing at all.”
“And yet you’re the asshole who palmed it off on me!” protests Rover.
“Well, I was jerking you around, you son of a bitch. Go fuck yourself!”
Everything here loses its urgency. We each take on the impassivity of a statue that takes no heed of the relentless fall of the day’s dust. Instead of stretching, my notion of space is cramped and hardening. Very quickly I get used to the idea that from now on we will be alone, trapped in a gigantic spider’s web that thickens around our heads. In this insignificant portion of the universe we are happy to move about with pointless gestures, with patchwork, thrown-together dreams, conversations had most often for the pleasure of hearing our own voices. Our bodies no longer have any mission except to inhale the maximum of oxygen for our sick lungs, to accustom our clogged ears to unimportant or absurd noises, the fart or burp of a relaxed roommate, blissfully happy as a dog, and our eyes to see only the things that bother entering our line of sight. Boredom atrophies my imagination, I’m impregnated ad nauseum by the mundaneness of my thoughts. Thankfully, spasms grab a hold of me. I’m like a wild horse imprisoned in a serene body where life beats despite the fear, despite the threat of one day being diluted like a common solution in the murderous hospital air.
Excerpted from The Hospital, published by New Directions. Original text © 1989 by Ahmed Bouanani. English translation © 2018 by Lara Vergnaud. By arrangement with the publisher.