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The Traveler and the Innkeeper
by Fadhil al-Azzawi
Translated by William Hutchins
AUC Press, 117 pp., £8.99, May 2011, ISBN 978-9774164620
The Mind of the Torturer
There are few contemporary novelists I know of who are as engagé and lyrically succinct as Fadhil al-Azzawi. His favourite form seems to be the ironic allegory, where he draws on his varied – at times brutal – life experiences to condense his larger-than-life themes into exquisitely-crafted miniatures of recent Iraqi history. Readers will remember his elegy to 1950s cosmopolitan Kirkuk in The Last of the Angels and his examination of one man’s senseless anguish in Cell Block Five. Yet before I begin to discuss the novel under review, I thought it appropriate to take the publishers to task for a small, if not wholly insignificant, short-sight: namely that of printing al-Azzawi’s note – composed thirty-four years after the novel was originally written, and where he goes on to elaborate on the novel’s personal, social and political background – as a preface instead of as an afterword. Note how the “preface” concludes:
Until we achieve a better grasp of the age in which we live and liberate ourselves from every type of ideological, religious, and nationalist extremism, and first and foremost from dictatorship (whatever it may call itself), we will continue forever and a day trapped inside a closed circle where the interrogator destroys his victim and the victim his interrogator, with no hope of escape.
Coupled with the fact that al-Azzawi used an actual childhood-friend-turned-police-inspector as the inspiration for Qasim Husayn, the central character of The Traveler and The Innkeeper, I for one certainly imagined the victim would be as much of a presence as the torturer, and instead, Jalil Mahmud – alias for al-Azzawi – is but a proxy for Qasim’s self-exploration, he is there to be cuckolded (Qasim later has an affair with Jalil’s wife) and to form part of the wider tableau, but never one of its more interesting motifs.
But back to the novel itself, or rather its plot. This third
and latest novel of al-Azzawi’s to appear in English is – like the previous
two, translated by William M Hutchins – set in Baghdad and opens in 1967, not
long before the June war. Qasim, “Inspector of the First Board”, finds Jalil
Mahmud, an old friend, being tortured by his colleagues. It’s not long before
we realize that Qasim is only a small cog in the machinery of horror. When
Jalil asks him, “It’s your dungeon. Didn’t you know I was here in the hands of
your cops?” Qasim can only offer a few questions of his own in return. Yet
readers expecting the slightest shred of sympathy for the victim are rapidly
disappointed; after all, Qasim and his hated colleagues were “trained to devour
those closest to them. There is little sympathy to spare in al-Azzawi’s
portrait of this particular moment in history – and it is all concentrated on
Qasim, the torturer. Eventually, tired of drifting from one bar or café to
another, Qasim finds relief in the arms of Huda, Jalil’s wife. But Qasim lives
in such a stifled world – confined by the duties he compels himself to carry
out – that we hardly feel he is invested in the affair: he cannot even sense
the encroaching disaster of the Six-Day War. He is a blind man reproaching
others for their own blindness. The novel ends with a quasi-reversal of roles
as Qasim becomes suspect in the eyes of the very Law he has so loyally served
when he attempts to cover up his affair with Huda.
With an ability to transmit a sense of compassion through the most sordid of characters, al-Azzawi proves masterful at recreating the interior of Qasim’s mind: the obsession with order prompted by a maniacal fear of uncertainties, the ability to sniff out an opponent’s weaknesses, as well as, perhaps surprisingly, the existential hollowness that lurks in the corners of his mind: “My God, I feel like such an invalid even though I am in the best of health. Someone inside me is screaming, but I can’t locate the source of the scream.” Unlikely words for a torturer one might think, but this is part of the joke. Like The Last of the Angels and Cell Block Five, The Traveler and The Innkeeper has a dark comedic undertone that accumulates to the point where it hovers on a cloud of farce before descending into utter defeat – but this, of course, is the allegorical point: Qasim’s defeat is also al-Azzawi’s, and Iraq’s, and ours.
From Banipal 43 - Celebrating Denys Johnson-Davies
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