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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Cell Block Five

Fadhil al-Azzawi

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Title: Cell Block Five
Author: Fadhil al-Azzawi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1972 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 108 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Cell Block Five - US
Cell Block Five - UK
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Cell Block Five - India
  • Arabic title: القلعة الخامسة
  • Translated by William M. Hutchins

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective novella of a system gone awry

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       A prison novel written in 1971 (and first published outside Iraq in 1972), by an Iraqi who later left to study in East Germany and then remained in exile there: one might well expect Cell Block Five, with its stark title and innocent protagonist, to be a typical exotic prison horror-story. In fact, the title may well be too stark: in the original Arabic it is القلعة الخامسة -- 'The Fifth Castle' -- which is more suggestive of the ambiguities here.
       The narrator is a young man, Aziz Mahmud Sa'id, an engineer from Kirkuk who ventures down to Baghdad on his vacation, in search of a good time. He had been sitting in a café, hoping to enlist the services of a prostitute, when the police rounded up the customers. He is carted off with group of political prisoners, and soon finds himself in Cell Block 5.
       Initially, it seems pretty exciting to him: he knows he hasn't really done anything wrong, and finds: "I was annoyed and delighted at the same time by this original and unwarranted event in my life". The reality of Cell Block 5 hits him soon enough, however -- or rather the reality of his situation. His isn't a case of mistaken identity, but rather of being at the wrong place at the wrong time -- and then being sent on to the next wrong place. Once he's part of the bureaucracy they don't know what to do with him; neither accused nor guilty of any crime, they have no reason for holding him, but can't admit fault and just let him go. (Of course, many of the politicals are also guilty of nothing more than thought-crimes and associating with the wrong sorts.) Eventually they suggest he just admit to some minor crime for which the punishment is less than the time he's already served, but those compromises don't appeal to him either. So he winds up stuck there, years having passed by by the time the book comes to a close.
       Aziz's innocence and his unwillingness to side with any particular group make him a suspicious figure all around, too. He's with the political prisoners, who range from the well-off professionals who have everything they need and look down upon the commoners, to radicals who are eventually hanged. For the most part, life in Cell Block 5 isn't too bad. The prisoners largely police themselves, and live in reasonable comfort. Some of the prisoners are even glad for the respite from the outside world, finally having an opportunity to read and study in quiet. Only those that don't play along -- or are suspected of being informants -- are dealt with harshly, something Aziz gets drawn into the middle of. Eventually his strict neutrality and refusal to compromise lend him a certain credibility -- but it's an attitude that also hinders his attaining his freedom, as the authorities don't know how to deal with someone like him who can't be simply broken.
       Aziz has pangs of conscience -- wondering to himself: "Do you suppose I was really guilty without being aware of it ?" -- and has no outsider to turn to, fearful of worrying his mother (or giving his colleagues an excuse to boot him out of his job). The isolation clearly wears him down, this miniature society in prison a substitute for the world at large, but clearly an inadequate one. The sister of one of the prisoners who comes to visit is taken by Aziz and seems to offer a lifeline, but even that winds up being a disappointment.
       Cell Block Five is not dreary or horrifying (though there is a disturbing casualness to some of the unpleasantness that is described, notably those hanged bodies), and Aziz a surprisingly upbeat (or naïve ...) narrator. At barely a hundred pages, it is an almost sketchy account, and does not try too hard to twist itself through Kafkaesque labyrinths; for the most part, that works well, though there are parts one wishes there was more too.
       Though it feels a bit thin in part, Cell Block Five is a solid novella of systems that develop their own peculiar dynamics, with an increasing human toll; one can easily see herein a fairly harmless forerunner of the greater crimes of the Saddam Hussein era that were to follow, or indeed similar situations in many other countries. Al-Azzawi's purposeful vagueness -- there's some revolutionary talk, but it is entirely generic -- make for a novel that seems on the surface largely harmless and yet rumbles with a deep and loud indictment. Worthwhile.

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Cell Block Five: Reviews: Other books by Fadhil al-Azzawi under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Iraqi author Fadhil al-Azzawi (فاضل العزاوي) was born in Kirkuk in 1940, and has lived in Germany since 1977.

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© 2008-2021 the complete review

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