Ahmed Bouanani’s complex but provocative novel The Hospital does not serve the living but the dead. When not being treated, patients wander the halls, interact, and attempt to navigate the expanse of the hospital while Bouanani’s nameless narrator writes down all he sees. Eventually, the line between their realities and nightmares fade, and the hospital gate disappears, making it a prison they can never leave.
Originally written in French in 1990, The Hospital fell into oblivion until Bouanani’s death in 2011. It was not until 2012, when his novel was reprinted in France and Morocco, that it received great acclaim. It was translated into English by Lara Vergnaud and published by New Directions Books in 2018.
Bouanani’s novel is a descent into an abyss of darkness, dreams, forgotten pasts, mythological anecdotes, religious fervor, and unknown illness. When Bouanani’s narrator first walks into the hospital, he assumes that he must have been alive because he can still “smell the scents of a city” on his skin.
The narrator meets porters, shopkeepers, and unemployed patients. He meets smugglers and thugs and “the rejects of inexplicable wars and an aborted nationalist resistance, farm boys without land or bread, left behind by chance like febrile castaways with a cargo of off-seasons and coarse languages.” Nevertheless, the patients come together in Wing C, donning their blue pajamas and feasting together for their last remaining days.
Bouanani’s text overflows with descriptions of Morocco’s landscape and the depth of its history with clarity in a text riddled with vague and dreamlike characters and their delusions and stories that are indistinguishable as real memories or fantasized pasts.
The characters are reminiscent of the marginalized, says translator Vergnaud, and the forgotten, “first by a colonial regime and later a bureaucratic and oppressive new state.”
Bouanani’s novel seems like a Kafkaesque novel at first, but it is layered with decades of insight into social and political changes.