Book Review: Guantanamo by Dorothea Dieckmann

Just as in my last review, here’s another book that makes me reconsider my rule of thumb that my books of the year are limited to books published that year. Had I read it two weeks before I did, Dorothea Dieckmann’s short novel, Guantanamo, would have easily made, if not topped, my 2007 list. In fact, I’m going to pull out some tired old war horses here: It grabs you from the first page. It is masterfully written. It is a “must read.” Most important, it is important.

Guantanamo does what excellent fiction should do — transport us to places we can’t go. Here, that place is inside the mind of a prisoner at the U.S. military’s detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Rashid is a 20-year old nonpracticing Muslim born and raised in Germany. He is half Indian and half German. He travels to Dehli to meet his grandmother and eventually befriends a young Afghan who takes him to Pakistan. Rashid gets caught up in the midst of an anti-American demonstration, is arrested and ends up at Gitmo.

Those are the “facts” (or are they?) of how Rashid ended up being a prisoner of the U.S. military. While the facts (or Rashid’s memory) may occasionally blur, Dieckmann’s exploration of the mind is as clear and expressive as you can find. Guantanamo, first published in Germany in 2004 and translated by Tim Mohr for last year’s U.S. edition, takes us inside Rashid’s thoughts, memories and emotions. The physical effects of his arrest, treatment, imprisonment and interrogations are certainly part and parcel of this — and described in haunting detail. But this is as much an investigation of the psyche, one that is equally as haunting. Dieckmann’s concise yet eloquent prose takes us on a harrowing journey that at times borders on a fever dream. She relies on public descriptions of the base and conditions there for the story’s framework but, as she notes, “As regards the inner details, only imagination can provide those[.]”

Dieckmann’s imagination — and her attention to detail — are stunning given all she packs into merely 150 pages. Some will simply view Guantanamo as a condemnation of U.S. policy and practices. In that regard, it is somewhat disheartening that it takes a German novelist to address those issues in such impressive fashion. Yet it would be unfair — and flat wrong — to view the work as a political tract. Just as one of the book’s two epigrams is the motto of the Joint Military Task Force Guantanamo (“Honor Bound to Defend Freedom”), the other is Franz Kafka’s short prose piece, “At Night.” Guantanamo goes beyond exploring the political questions that may surround the former into a Kafkaesque realm that explores the limits of the body and psyche of an ordinary human being.

Dieckmann’s writing style cinches it all. She writes with such clarity and power that Guantanamo could, and perhaps should, serve as an exemplar for writing classes. She takes us inside Rashid’s thoughts and experiences in such a compelling way that I frequently found myself stopping to marvel not only at what she conveyed as the few words she used to do so. In fact, for the first time in months, I found myself compelled to underline passages in a book I was reading for pleasure. (Meaning it’s a good thing I didn’t get it from the library.) Guantanamo‘s effectiveness and much of its feeling stems in part from Dieckmann’s command and the power of succinct expression.

Sometimes the words used to describe books become shopworn because they are tossed around too easily. To call Guantanamo stunning, compelling and exquisitely written is to give those terms the weight and meaning they deserve.

Memories are dangerous. They bring time into the cage, and the cage is too small for that.

Dorothea Dieckmann, Guantanamo

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