The Torture Novel

While the “prison novel” is a recognizable and even celebrated genre, fewer novelists—Arab or non-Arab—have seriously confronted torture.

A 1988 article by Susan Van Zanten Gallagher in Contemporary Literature suggests that torture is a live issue particularly for South American and African writers. I find the implications of her statement quite eyebrow-raising, even if one could leave aside WWII and colonial-era torture.

In any case, Gallagher goes on to quote J.M. Coetzee, for whom “torture has exerted a dark fascination,” and who says that writers attempting to depict it face a dilemma. Gallagher: “First, he or she must find a middle way between ignoring the obscenities performed by the state, on the one hand, and producing representations of those obscenities, on the other.”

Coetzee: “The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms.”

The process for the author who imagines and depicts torture must be horrific. I am thinking here of Elias Khoury’s Yalo and Anouar Benmalek’s Abduction. But there is also Bensalem Himmich’s 2010 My Tormenter, and readers also suggested: Sharq al-Mutawassit (East of the Mediterranean) by Abdul Rahman Munif; Now, Here also by Munif; In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar; This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun; Salah el Ouadie’s The Bridesgroom; El Karnak by Naguib Mahfouz; Sharaf (Honor) by Sonallah Ibrahim. Perhaps Fadhil al-Azzawi’s The Traveler and the Innkeeper falls part-way into this category.

Undoubtedly, Khoury’s Yalo does not play by the narrative rules of the state (nor any party, nor organization) and establishes its own fragmented story-creating authority. The book is horrifying. Many will not be able to stomach or complete it. After all, its main subject is the torture widely practiced and widely denied in our time.

Abduction, which I am reading now, and which is giving me nightmares, was written in French (not Arabic). I didn’t think much of this choice, as many Algerians write in French. But then, after a tortured Algerian turns on a French soldier and beats him, we hear:

If some divine director exists, he must take great pleasure in such an unlikely reversal.

Of course, the “divine director” of this book is author Anouar Benmalek (trans. Simon Pare). And Benmalek’s book is, in defiance of Coetzee’s rules, highly realist.

Through the book’s realism, the (Francophone) reader is implicated in the book’s awful, terrifying torture. The reader experiences the viewpoint of both torturer and tortured, and must suffer along with them.

Is there a vicarious “thrill” to the torture in Abduction? (Is there a thrill for Benmalek, who surely realized some French readers will now suffer a pinkie’s fragment of what Algeria suffered?) Does Abduction simply reproduce torture, and thus become a part of it? I haven’t finished the book, but thus far there is no big-screen “thrill” that one might experience when seeing Brad Pitt press a knife against a person’s fingers and slice them off.

Can reading about torture, like playing video games, desensitize us to the dark closet? Maybe, in a thriller. But if anything, reading novels about torture  has extra-sensitized me to the horrors of our contemporary world.

Americans heard the word “waterboarding” any number of times, and were desensitized to the practice by this repetition without reflection. These literary novels that depict torture, with their horrors and flaws, offer reflection.

I don’t know about this one:

Do novels spread human rights and discourage torture? UCLA history professor Lynn Hunt argues that they do….


  1. Abdo Khal can be added to the list of Arab writers who “address/depict” torture. The central protagonist of tarmee bi-sharar, Tareq, is the palace torturer – he is at the beck and call of his ‘master’ 24 hours a day to inflict whatever the latter sees fit in the way of punishment or retribution to those that have crossed him.

  2. oops …. punishment or retribution ‘on’ not ‘to’ …:)

  3. ‘Saddam City’ by Mahmoud Saeed and ‘Ijaam’ by Sinan Antoon are worth reading. Also the torture scenes in my The Road from Damascus (written in English) which are set in Iraq but inspired by stories I heard in Syria.

  4. Saddam City, yes, I don’t know why that escaped my mind. And Ijaam…I guess I thought of it as a prison novel but not a “torture” novel. I’ll have to re-read.

    How is it I haven’t read your novel yet? Tsk, tsk. Maybe you should send me a copy…

    And Maia, of course I look forward to reading the Khal…

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