shining the spotlight on short story collections
Comma Press, 2013
“If there was a special search engine for dreams, like Google, all dreamers would find their dreams in works of art. The dreamer would put a word, or several words, from his dream into the Dream Search Engine, and thousands of results would appear. The more the search is narrowed down, the closer he gets to his dream and eventually he finds out it’s a painting or a piece of music or a sentence in a play.“
Hassan Blasim is a poet, filmmaker and short story writer. Born in Baghdad in 1973, he studied at the city’s Academy of Cinematic Arts, where two of his films Gardenia (screenplay) and White Clay (screenplay & director) won the Academy Festival Award for Best Work in their respective years. In 1998 he left Baghdad for Sulaymaniya (Iraqi Kurdistan) where he continued to make films, including the feature-length drama Wounded Camera, under the pseudonym ‘Ouazad Osman’, fearing for his family back in Baghdad under the Hussein dictatorship. In 2004, he moved to Finland, where he has since made numerous short films and documentaries for Finnish television. His stories have previously been published on www.iraqistory.com and his essays on cinema have featured in Cinema Booklets (Emirates Cultural Foundation). After first appearing in English in Madinah, his debut collection The Madman of Freedom Square was translated by Jonathan Wright and published by Comma a year later (2009).
Madman was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010, and has since been translated into Finnish, Spanish, Polish and Italian. Hasan has won the English PEN Writers in Translation award twice, and was recently described by The Guardian as ‘perhaps the greatest writer of Arabic fiction alive’. The Iraqi Christ is his second collection.
Jonathan Wright studied Arabic at Oxford University in the 1970s and has spent eighteen of the past thirty years in the Arab world, mostly as a journalist with the international news agency Reuters. His first major literary translation was of Khaled el-Khamissi’s best-selling book Taxi, published in English by Aflame Books in 2008. For two years, until late 2011, Wright was editor of the Arab Media & Society Journal, published by the Kamal Adham Center for Journalism Training and Research at the American University in Cairo. Other translations include the novel Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan, which won the Arabic Booker prize in 2009, and Judgment Day, by the Lebanese writer Rasha al Ameer.
The maxim oft quoted to writers is that one should write what one knows best, and this often translates into a kind of ‘neat enclosure of the mind’ for ethnic writers writing about the place they’re from. It’s a limitation on the imagination usually, to my mind, but in Hassan Blasim’s collection of stories — at once evoking the spectral influence of Borges, Bolano, Kafka and Gogol, toying with magical realism, peppered as it is with gruesome deaths, blasé violence, manic minds, and a general climate of war and terror that is Iraq’s recent past — I have but one realisation: no one else but Blasim could have written these stories; no one else could have portrayed that particular time and place in the subtle, dream-like, bleakly humorous way he does. The satire is woven deep into the psyche of these stories — The Song of The Goats tells a story about people queuing up to tell their stories for a radio programme entitled Their Stories in Their Own Voices in order to win a prize, and the more tragic and cruel their stories the better. There is an element of madness here that cannot be contained, people vying to bare their stories of horror on radio in order to win a material prize that in no way compensates them for any of their losses or suffering, but Blasim kicks the satire up a notch by having the organiser tell the contestants that what matters isn’t the saddest or most frightening story, but one that rings with “authenticity” and has a distinct “style of narration”, which Blasim then proceeds to do with every story in this collection.
That “ring of authenticity” takes us down a hole, like Alice, to encounter a decrepit flesh-eating old man, and in time, the narrator (a Baghdad shopkeeper) himself takes the place of the cannibalistic old man a.k.a. djinni (The Hole). Perhaps what’s disgusting and can’t be stomached becomes ordinary and acceptable if one is forced to steep in it long enough. This “ring of authenticity” takes us deeper into the world of deaths in the next three stories (and many of the stories in this collection actually end in violent deaths), where death by suicide (it’s faster and certainly more efficient) is preferable to death by colon cancer (The Fifth Floor Window), and an Iraqi man with the heart of Christ (hence, The Iraqi Christ) switches places with a suicide bomber in order to spare his blind, deaf and memory-damaged mother (who certainly won’t remember his act of salvation) and subsequently bombs a restaurant to pieces, to the surreal world of two hit-men who agonises over the keeping of a rabbit found in the park (again, the inescapable satire— the lives of men are trivial, but a rabbit’s life is by far more precious) (The Green Zone Rabbit). This ring of authenticity brings us sentences, surprising in descriptive detail, refreshingly skilful in its use of gallows humour, such as these:
the young woman had a …face [that] looked like the needle of an electric sewing machine had pricked it for many hours (The Wolf).
We were stuck between the pilot’s groans and the bloody scenes outside the window. (The Fifth Floor Window).
the animals also separated the religious books from the law books (The Green Zone Rabbit).
James the Nigerian came out of the doctor’s room ecstatic, and pulled the cord of his shorts, as if he had just come out of a prostitute’s room. (Why Don’t You Write a Novel, Instead of Talking About All These Characters?).
When you suddenly lose everything and snap like a bone, a door in your soul flickers open and closed as quick as an eyelash, a door that opens into the hidden self, the self that lies beyond pain. (Dear Beto).
Inevitably, stories set in cataclysmic climates will take on a fable-like, magical realistic, meta-fictional and self-referential element, such as the magician who could make knives appear or disappear (A Thousand And One Knives — the referent nod to Sheherazade no doubt deliberate and metaphysical), or Sarsara, the old woman who could make death trees sprout from the ground just through casting her gaze about (the apparent message here being, there’s no killing hope even in death by multitudes). Hassan Blasim himself appears in one or two of the stories — told off for trafficking in the stories of refugees instead of writing a novel, which is what novelists should properly do. As Blasim himself implied, it isn’t the fact that these stories of war and terror are told using these conventional story-telling tools, but how they’re told, i.e. the style of narration.
The epiphanic pickings can’t be missed by the reader, and they bear contemplation. In this kind of mental landscape, lives are lived no better than animals, and Blasim uses the metaphor of animals — from rabbits to mice to wolves and even a hoopoe — to amazing effect. There’s a sickness in the people — the sickness borne of the climate of war and terror and suicide bombers and mind-numbing paralysis of body and soul — and people look for talismans in these situations, such as a Christ-like person who could forecast where the next heat-seeking missiles would be coming from, or the holy compass that could not keep death at bay but would keep a body from being blown to bits (The Killers and The Compass).
In this second collection, Blasim also transports us to his adoptive country, Finland, and several of the stories (Dear Beto, The Dung Beetle, The Wolf) are set up in a liminal headspace somewhere between Helsinki and Baghdad. I did long for more exploration here (how far do and can we travel metaphysically from the harrowing place that defines us? What causes rebirth or rejuvenation of the spirit?), hence, what we were given felt like the tip of the iceberg, to make a Finlandic play on idiom here. What comes across however is that however easily one may leave behind a place of terror, the terrors that remain in the mind aren’t so easily forsaken, and one lives suspended, like a “mass of schizoid monkeys in one body”. (The Dung Beetle).
So, why read another short story collection, as heavy as “a loaf of barley bread” (The Hole) in its subject matter, full of intricate intrigue in its political satire, half of which is difficult to comprehend entirely without a wikipedic geographic scan of the history and politics of the region? Why? Let me offer just three reasons that made me read and then re-read the collection. Because it is written with a surprisingly light and deft hand, leavened with astonishing phrases like “God’s pimping earth”, “a chewgum Christ”, or “a Buddhist cloud”. Because of Blasim’s ability to make art and mystery leap out of such dearths of hope and beauty. Because he takes us to “places we’ve forgotten to miss” (Sarsara’s Tree), reacquainting those souls who have been corroded by war and suffering with the very simple gift of humanity, thus earning him the well-deserved accolade of “best writer of Arabic fiction alive”.
Read a story from this collection in Words without Borders
About the reviewer: Elaine Chiew lives in London. Her fiction has won awards (including the Bridport), and been shortlisted (Fish Short Story Award, Top 25 Glimmer Train’s Emerging Writer Award). She has written a short story collection and a novel, both of which are out in submission. Many of her stories can be found online at journals such as Metazen, Per Contra, Pedestal, African Writing Online, among others.