My Torturess. By Bensalem Himmich; translated by Roger Allen. Middle East Literature in Translation. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2015. Pp. 225, with glossary. $19.95 (paperback). ISBN: 9780815610472.
Bensalem Himmich, novelist, poet, and teacher at Mohammed V University in Morocco and formerly the Minister of Culture for Morocco, has won many awards for his writing in Arabic and French—most recently for his novel The Muslim Suicide. Recognizing the impact of his writing in multiple languages is relevant because this novel, like so many pieces of literature, can surely be analyzed from multiple points of view—depending on the language in which it is being read (in my case in English translation) or the cultural context for the reader. I argue this is one of the great attributes of quality literary art. While understanding the potential for incredible diversity of approaches to Himmich’s novel, I simply state that my review will come from mostly one way—that of its relationships to certain books in the world of writing. This review operates as a stroll through some observed bookish influences.
Himmich’s literary erudition is exhibited in this work easily through its overall plot and structure—that of a bookseller named Hamuda, nabbed for supposedly having a cousin who is involved in terrorism, and taken to an undisclosed prison where he is starved and tortured. The disconnect in what happens to him, his own mental responses, and the array of characters that cross paths with him in the prison all remind one of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” This is not in the comedic elements of Kafka’s story, but in the continual lack of direct evidence levied against the main character even as the people in charge of the prison, and Mama Ghula the Torturess, inflict layers of power over him. The bureaucracy of the system is evident: what people will do to stay within that system and the modes and moments in which people sacrifice their beliefs to stay alive.
Yet literature, like so many art forms, is not only a reflection of literature’s history. Sometimes it masquerades as philosophy or psychology. Himmich is as much a philosopher as he is an authentic writer. In the case of My Torturess, Himmich seems to filter one of Europe’s well-known psychologists, Viktor E. Frankl, and his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl’s book details his survival of a concentration camp run by the Nazis and tells of the decisions he must make for himself in his mind and heart in order to put forth the best effort to stay alive and stay human. But Frankl’s modus operandi is not only to tell his tale; it is also to lay out examples of his own psychological school, logotherapy.
Frankl’s school of psychology is based in the existential tradition of focusing on the capacity for the human will to accomplish (Nietzsche and Foucault). And while Hamuda in Himmich’s novel must make decisions to keep his mind right and avoid all kinds of distractions and temptations, even while wounded and starving, Himmich does not simply give Hamuda a derivative story in which his narrative is some contemporary re-thinking of Frankl’s book. Instead, he overcomes the anxiety of influence and writes a much more indirect re-telling of logotherapeutic methods. The result is better writing and better literary art than being an obvious derivative. Specifically, Himmich does something that Frankl did not do in his book: he allows the main character to reference the cosmic order, that of Islam and Quranic readings. Himmich is aware that events and reactions occur in cultural contexts, but he also accepts that religion and faith are as much a part of that cultural context as any other thing. By referencing the cosmic order and writing a story that seems to allude to Frankl’s book, he creates a character who shows off dedicated faith and worthy erudition in Islam, history, and literature—a fact underscored by the inclusion of a glossary at the end of the novel with names and books the characters discuss throughout.
Since Hamuda’s story is being published in 2015 in English translation, the historical and situational contexts cannot go unnoticed. Some of these contexts are: the international war on terror, example after example of racial and ethnic profiling by security forces and police, rumors and examples of rendition, and many-sided arguments over religion and its impact in the world, to name just a few. Himmich’s novel is not framed as an obvious polemic. It does not make heavy-handed reference to the War on Terror or specific events in the Middle East. The main torturer is a French woman, the assistants who help are caught up in the system, and one of the guards is of an unknown ethnic or racial background—all personal features of characters that distance it from the world as it is described in the news by not locking in analysis of any one-to-one ratio between the book’s events and actual events. Even the setting removes it from locations as they are represented in mainstream English-language media. I suggest this is another of the novel’s strengths.
Himmich’s novel places it all there in his quality book. The narrative does not shy away from the physical suffering experienced by his main character, but he does not allow that to singularly define him either. My Torturess is a literary working-out with regional and international import. Its award-winning author continues his work with this novel—an effort of quality writing that embraces past efforts in writing and literature even while being produced in a contemporary historical and sociological context.
Jesse A. Lambertson
Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center Library