It starts with the body of an American soldier that washes up on the Cuban side of the Guantánamo fence, before the action moves into the Gitmo base itself. There, our hero, FBI interrogator Falk, is set on a series of events that will lead to "his transition from captor to captive". And the stage is set for a thriller that will put the guards themselves in jeopardy as it lifts the lid on what it's like to inhabit this American gulag. What unfolds instead in Dan Fesperman's novel is a clotted tale, part detective procedural and part international spy thriller. It becomes increasingly puzzling as its plot spins out.
Falk, first name Revere (a name given by a father so awful that Falk has declared himself an orphan), is one of the good guys. He's an Arabic-speaking interrogator who coaxes rather than tortures information from his suspects. And his patience is paying off. He is on the brink of uncovering the name of the "sugar daddy and bankroller" of the half-crazed Yemeni detainee Adnan al-Hamdi. Leave aside doubts as to whether idiot 19-year-olds who stumble into jihad, as Adnan is said to have done, are actually members of local al-Qa'ida cells who have sugar daddies; what we now expect is the unfolding of a story that will end with Falk as a prisoner.
Falk is ordered by Gitmo's general-in-charge to investigate the mysterious drowning of Sergeant Earl Ludwig, and his corpse's tide-defying flotation onto Cuban soil. No sooner does Falk begin than three sinister men fly in from Washington. It becomes clear that no one wants Falk to uncover the secret of Ludwig's death. He begins to realise that his own youthful indiscretions are somehow connected with whatever is going on.
The atmosphere Fesperman builds at the novel's beginning soon dissipates. Whereas Moazzam Begg's real-life account of his incarceration in Guantánamo (written with Victoria Brittain) is at its most eloquent when describing guards and interrogators, whose conversation ranges from the cooking of escargots to the legacy of Marcus Garvey, Fesperman's Americans are curiously blank. They seem uninterested in the outside world, unbothered by the sudden arrest of one of their Arabic-speaking translators, or by an investigative team that inexplicably incarcerates them. And while Begg inducts us into a bizarre and hidden world where inmates nickname psychiatrists "Hitchcocks" (after Psycho) and guards wear combat uniforms with the US flag facing the wrong way because they are "charging towards the enemy", Fesperman's thriller, after his first stab at the camp's stifling claustrophobia, winds on with less and less texture.
The plot rattles because it is so laboured. The prisoners are, in the main, one undifferentiated mass - some falsely accused, yes, but none really human. Their guards are worse: strange clod-hopping ciphers who allow our hero to journey into all sorts of forbidden places on his un-provable say-so that he has his general's authority.
In place of differentiated characters we get variety in surname: from Falk's dubious friend, Bokamper, who may or may not be helping him (while he may or may not be trying to steal Falk's dull girlfriend, Pam), to the sinister Van Meter, whose name alone suggests that he is the probable baddie. And then there is the Cuban subplot that gradually mutates into central plot. Falk, you see, is a man so stunningly naïve as a young Marine that he got blackmailed by dastardly Cubans. Now it appears these rogues are, in adversarial concord with crazy Washington neo-cons, gearing up for a new confrontation. It's a curious choice: a thriller that starts in Guantánamo before winding itself into a coming battle not against al-Qa'ida or Syria or Iran or even North Korea, but a far-fetched, Cuban giant. Somehow it just doesn't have a credible ring.
Gillian Slovo co-wrote the documentary play 'Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom' (Oberon Books)
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