The corpse exhibition
William ARMSTRONG - firstname.lastname@example.org‘The Madman of Freedom Square’ (Comma Press, £10, 96 pages) and 'The Iraqi Christ' (Comma Press, £10, 144 pages) by Hassan Blasim, both translated by Jonathan Wright
Hassan Blasim has been described by the Guardian as “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive.” That’s a lofty claim, but the wider critical response has been similarly eulogistic since his first volume of stories, “The Madman of Freedom Square,” captured attention in 2009. That book was followed by the equally macabre “The Iraqi Christ” in 2013, and Penguin published a selection from both volumes amid much fanfare last year. Acclaim in the Arab world has been slightly less fulsome (more about that later), but Blasim’s blistering, visceral tales certainly have struck a chord in a West searching for a literary voice to attach to modern Iraq’s headline-commanding anguish.
Blasim fled his native country shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. He spent three years in the hellish limbo of the asylum process in Turkey and Bulgaria before settling as a refugee in Finland, where he has occupied himself writing and making documentary films for Finnish TV. His stories are set in Iraq and Europe - taut, urgent narratives full of extreme violence and grotesque details, laced with an almost phantasmagorical surrealism and pitch black humor. In one tale about a migrant truck on the road to Berlin, the world is described as “very fragile, frightening and inhumane. All it needs is a little shake for its hideous nature and its primeval fangs to emerge.” Of course, Iraq has had rather more than “a little shake” over the past 30 or so years, and Blasim’s writing is one grimly eloquent testimony.
Critics sometimes suggest that Blasim is working in the tradition of luminaries like Borges, Kafka, and Calvino, but his own nightmarish stories are far more explosive than the studied intellectual playfulness of those figures. Narratives self-destruct, the motivation of his traumatized characters often contains no internal logic, violence seems senseless, authority is earned by brute force and then shatters. Death comes easily and apparently without meaning, as captured in the story “The Green Zone Rabbit”:
The taxi driver handed them over at a fake checkpoint. The Allahu Akbar militias took them away to an undisclosed location. They drilled lots of holes in their bodies with an electric drill and then cut off their heads. We found their bodies in a rubbish dump on the edge of the city.
The unadorned language only makes the description more horrifying, illustrating the shocking banality of brutality in an Iraq described by Blasim’s publisher as a “surrealist inferno.”
His stories have been heavily censored in the Arab world, but some who have read them have criticized Blasim for “eroticizing” atrocity, playing to easy stereotypes of Iraq as, in his own words, a “hell of fire and death.” But Blasim himself often acknowledges the prurient urge to gawp at atrocities in the Middle East. In one of his strongest stories, “The Reality and the Record,” an Iraqi asylum seeker regales the Swedish authorities with exaggerated tales of torture and kidnapping, recognizing that “what matters to you is the horror.” After later admitting to the reader that “the truth is I just want to sleep,” he ends up getting carted away to a psychiatric facility.
Some Arab critics have also complained that Blasim’s language lacks artfulness and poise, but he has been unapologetic about this in interviews, describing classical Arabic as “one of the prisons of the Arab world” and asking, “how can you write like Ibn Arabi about car bombs?” Whatever you think about the bluntness of his language (captured unfussily by translator Jonathan Wright), and however you respond to his stories’ grisly tinge, there can be little doubt that those two ingredients go together peculiarly well.
Reading these two volumes reminded me of the famous words of Orson Welles’ character in The Third Man: “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” When the violence and suffering of Iraq are distilled so effectively as they are in Blasim’s work, you can only hope that living in the dull security of Finland won’t eventually soften his edge.