One of torture’s most striking aspects is the simplicity of its methods. Former detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay have said they were “waterboarded”—strapped to a board, their faces covered with cellophane, while water was poured on them—which simulates the sensation of drowning. Other times they were “short shackled,” chained to a hook in the floor, which forced them to curl up in the fetal position. Or they were made to stand for long stretches of time, a sleep-deprivation technique. Dorothea Dieckmann describes torture in Guantanamo—a novel that follows a young detainee named Rashid—in cold, precise detail. Reading it can cause a sort of bone-chill to set in, and an even more discomforting sense of awe.
Dieckmann, a German essayist and literary critic, owes much of the novel’s verisimilitude to reports published by the media, human rights groups, and the military. Journalists are now able to tour Guantánamo, and they, in turn, have relayed the physical characteristics of the place, from the presence of a McDonald’s at the military base—the only one in Cuba—to the arrows pointing toward Mecca that are painted on a wall in every prison cell. Dieckmann has collected those descriptions and assembled them into a factual framework, a world for her fictional prisoner Rashid to inhabit. But, she writes in her author’s note, “As regards the inner details, only imagination can provide those.”
This is Dieckmann’s first impressive feat as a novelist: that she even goes there—to Guantánamo, and into the mind of her protagonist. (Think how often acts of terrorism and torture are described as “unimaginable horrors.”) Guantanamo begins with 20-year-old Rashid’s arrival at the base,disoriented, delirious, and weak. Dieckmann offers only bare-bones information about him up front: He’s a German citizen, half-German and half-Indian. His father was born Muslim, though neither father nor son are devout. Rashid traveled to Delhi to meet his grandmother. At some point, he befriended a young Afghan who took him to Pakistan, where he attended an anti-American demonstration, which led to his arrest.
Dieckmann seems to innately understand how to flesh out the news stories. She manages details perfectly, providing just enough of them to shade in the world of the camp, and no more. That spare description conveys the ambiguity that pervades it—we experience Rashid’s confusion and never know what occurs beyond his field of vision. Her sentences tend to be short; adjectives are rationed with care. The scene-setting threads that run through her paragraphs—the sound of Muslim prayer calls that come on the loudspeakers five times a day, the Kit Kat bar Rashid receives from a guard—are vivid, while descriptions of his physical state are dense with visceral detail. After an interrogation, for instance, Rashid is doused with water and thrust into a closet-sized freezer. “Walls all around,” Dieckmann writes. “Gray metal walls, covered with a grayish-white crust. His back burns, his wet skin sticks to the stuff on the walls, rips as he rights himself.” The scene proceeds like this for two excruciating pages.
Yet, for all the precision of Dieckmann’s prose, her portrait of Rashid deliberately remains blurry—the story is about imprisonment, not a specific prisoner. What we get instead of biography are descriptions of what he’s seeing and his memories; we’re in his nerve endings, feeling those cracks of pain and the noose around his neck as he attempts suicide. We believe that he’s innocent of violent terrorist activity, but never quite learn the facts about what he has done, not even through a long, harrowing interrogation scene that evokes the bottomless exhaustion that comes with restating the same information over and over again. Dieckmann omits the questions—another instance of her paring away—and leaves only his answers, which take on an almost hypnotic rhythm.
The interrogations and beatings Rashid suffers do work, in a sense, in that they wear him down. But the practical pitfalls of those methods quickly become obvious. Rashid’s desperation swells as he changes his story several times, trying to anticipate what might absolve him, or what his interrogators might want to hear. We know he’s capable of lying because he does so at one point, telling them they have the wrong man—his name is Leo; he’s a tourist who got on the wrong bus in Pakistan. He says that he didn’t kill Americans, but later, after he’s been shut in the freezer, he answers “yes” when he’s asked if he’s a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s torture’s awful power—it can obscure the truth just as easily as illuminate it. Dieckmann knows that, and she reveals it here using the same sure hand she uses to take us into Rashid’s mind.