READS OF THE YEAR 2015: Graeme Macrae Burnet

Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Canongate, 2015)

51XtlCDEWxL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_There are many shocking things about Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary but perhaps the most shocking of all is the fact that, while it was written in 2005, ten years later Slahi remains in Guantánamo with no charges against him.

The book tells the story of Slahi’s enforced odyssey from his native Mauritania through the prison system of Jordan to his rendition to Camp Delta in 2002. Slahi’s account of all this and his subsequent incarceration and torture in Guantánamo is written in calm and lucid prose. Slahi, a former mujahedeen in Afghanistan, comes across as a wholly admirable individual, with a wry sense of humour; often pondering the motivations of his interrogators. But while he remains a mostly unflappable narrator you read all this with growing horror and anger. The account of his mock execution and beating on a disorienting boat trip is utterly horrifying. A sample, more or less at random:

They tightened the chains around my ankles and my wrists…I thought they were going to execute me. Thanks to the beating I wasn’t able to stand, so [redacted] and the other guard dragged me out with my toes tracing the way and threw me in a truck…The beating party would go on for the next three or four hours before they turned me over to another team that was going to use different torture techniques.

And so it goes on. Yet a couple of pages later, Slahi is able to reflect on the dynamic between the torturer and victim:

Torture doesn’t guarantee that the detainee cooperates. In order to stop torture, the detainee has to please his assailant, even with untruthful, and sometimes misleading, Intels.

It’s possible (unfortunately) to read more brutal and lurid accounts of torture, but I doubt if any are as eloquent as Slahi’s. Guantánamo Diary is not just a record of criminal abuse, it is a work of literature. It reads like a novel and like any first person account there are sometimes cracks and omissions, but such things only add to the power and apparent veracity of the narrative. This is a truly important book, one that should be required reading for every British and American schoolchild – and anyone who still clings to a belief in the moral superiority of the West.

La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe; trans. by Faith Evans (Daunt Books, 2014)

La Femme de GillesMadeleine Bourdouxhe’s exquisite short novel, first published in 1937, opens with the eponymous Elisa, awaiting her husband’s return from work. As she lays the table for the evening meal, she is ‘giddy with tenderness’. As the title suggests, Elisa is a character who exists primarily in relation to her husband. She inhales his smell; she runs her fingers over his body; she gazes adoringly at him. This might sound cloying – anti-feminist even – but it’s not. It’s tender. It’s tender because, as Bourdouxhe makes clear, Gilles entirely reciprocates her feelings.

But, of course, marital bliss does not a novel make. So when Gilles begins an affair with his wife’s capricious sister, Victorine, Elisa’s well-ordered life is thrown off kilter. At first she feels only a vague sense of unease, but her suspicions are slowly borne out by scraps of evidence: Gilles lies; Gilles has a little bruise on his lip; Gilles does not make love to her in the morning. Elisa clings, heartbreakingly, to tiny acts of kindness as proof that Gilles is still hers, that he still loves her. Returning from an assignation with Victorine, he rummages in his pocket for a bag of caramels he has bought her.

Here he was being as gentle and kind as always, and he’d thought about her, he’d bought her sweets

…It was all so strange and impenetrable. Perhaps there was nothing wrong after all.

All this might make Elisa seem like a bit of a sap, and perhaps there is an element of masochism in her, as if she finds in her suffering something ennobling. But Elisa is not a sap. She is kind and affectionate, and everything that has made she and Gilles happy is being laid waste. Her behaviour is not calculated. She simply wants her handsome, cheerful, loving Gilles back. ‘She is a woman without guile, without pride, without a philosophy.’ A kind of female counterpart to poor old Charles Bovary.

All this is told with great economy, in measured, limpid prose. The ending, when it comes, is devastating, and all the more so for the masterful restraint with which it is told. It’s sad and beautiful; the best novel I have read in a very long time.

The Book of Death and Fish by Ian Stephen (Saraband, 2015)

BDF-FRONTAt first sight Ian Stephen’s The Book of Death and Fish would seem a quite different proposition, weighing in as it does at a mighty 550 pages. But it shares with Bourdouxhe’s novel a close attention to minutiae and everyday tasks of life and, while never straining for profundity, invests them with significance. It is narrated by Peter MacAulay, like the author, a native of Lewis. At the beginning of the novel MacAulay ponders the knack of storytelling:

When you interrupt yourself in a story, for any reason, you go back. Not always the full way but you backtrack before you gain forward momentum. It can be a long time before you overtake your original point. This is good.

And this is, too, how the novel progresses. While it does follow the chronology of MacAulay’s life, the structure is loose and digressive; episodic. It’s not in a hurry to get anywhere in particular and neither should the reader be. It’s a book to savour and take one’s time with. But such patience is richly rewarded. Stephen’s writing is often breathtakingly good. The novel is deeply immersed in the culture, history and customs of Lewis, but above all Stephen has a poet’s love of language, specifically the argot of his native island. It is full of (to this lowlander) unfamiliar but evocative words – hawser, gensey, olaid, blones – and the narrative voice is relaxed and intimate. You feel you have been drawn into conversation over a dram with an old guy in the snug of a pub.

A single chapter offers a glimpse of the novel’s best qualities. In ‘Stella’, MacAulay describes the death of a childhood friend’s father (“I’d to promise not to ask him anything”.) The story begins with a description of the building of the gellie (bonfire) for Guy Fawkes Night and ends with a clandestine act of charity, recognised by the eight-year-old MacAulay by the smell of bonfire smoke on his father’s clothes. It’s a piece of writing of the very highest calibre, delivering more impact in five pages than the vast majority of novels do in three hundred. And like La Femmes de Gilles, its power comes from the restraint and understatement in the telling.


Graeme Macrae Burnet’s latest novel His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae was published in November by Saraband.


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