Once he crosses the hospital’s iron doorway, the narrator is trapped. And thus begins Ahmed Bouanani’s novella, The Hospital, wherein an unnamed guide navigates the labyrinthine world of a hospital on the outskirts of Casablanca. Despite scant details about the institution or the narrator’s illness, we understand that his stay is less than voluntary.
What emerges is a story of Casablanca’s beggars and madmen. As the narrator struggles to differentiate between reality and imagination, and maintain his sanity, he records the minutiae of the wards of one wing of the hospital. Through a series of short vignettes, the narrator describes events in wing C that transpire over a period of weeks, months, or even years. The portraits that emerge reveal his fellow patients’ simplicity, depravity, and naiveté without ever verging into pity or caricature. Relying heavily on colloquial dialogue, Bouanani creates a contained universe where God, sex, and family are equally lauded, condemned, and mocked.
The narrator himself alternates between remarkable lucidity, offering his observations with grim irony and detachment, and vivid hallucinations. Bouanani uses vibrant imagery to its best effect when describing the narrator’s descent into a dizzying fantasy world–one where his younger self and the incarnation of death both have speaking parts. Modeled after the author’s own stint in a tuberculosis sanatorium, The Hospital offers the reader a focused, almost claustrophobic look at the patients of wing C–some (the sexual predators and parricidal killers) abhorrent but nonetheless compelling. In short, Bouanani’s novella is a story of contrasts: health/disease, pureness/perversion, control/chaos, and lastly, resignation/rebellion. But more than a portrait of a single man’s odyssey through madness, the work offers a larger glimpse into one of Morocco’s darkest periods. Reflecting Bouanani’s experiences as a writer living in a climate of political unrest and harsh government repression, The Hospital is an allegory of the position of the artist and the conditions of the production of art in Morocco in the second half of the 20th century.
Since Bouanani’s death in 2011, artists in Morocco have been trying to revive interest in his works. So far, their efforts have resulted in a re-edition of The Hospital in both Morocco and France, and an upcoming Arabic translation of the novella. Bouanani’s writings should be framed within a broader, post-colonial aesthetic movement that sought to valorize Moroccan literature and film. The Hospital is an undeniably important work within that corpus. Beyond its historical significance, however, the novella stands out as a compelling and unique narrative characterized by Bouanani’s acerbic, engrossing, and magical prose.
From Pierre Joris’s memoir of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine:
During a dinner at La Coupole in Paris (circa 1979)…I turned to my neighbor, Kathy Acker, and started to tell her everything I knew about Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, what an absolutely superb poet he was, the greatest of his generation in Morocco, how powerful his prose was, how violently he had disemboweled the colonizer’s language in order to be able to put it to accurate new uses, how he had turned it into a truly alive counter-language and how especially in Moi l’aigre he had done that with a brilliance that bordered on genius. I sang Mohammed’s praises for as long as she and anyone else at the table would listen—I wanted them to know, but, maybe before all, I wanted to reassure myself, as I knew without knowing it, that this was the last time I would see him. And it was. Except that from time to time when I sit down to write a poem I try to think through him, Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, and try to gather that way some of the absolute intensity and fearlessness necessary for a true guérilla poétique.
When I heard of his death, the line of poetry that came to mind was not his, but this one, by Guillaume Apollinaire: soleil cou coupé / sun throat cut.
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