A new crop of Iraqi authors was recently discovered by the West. Inaam Kachachi (Tashari), Ahmed Saadawi (Frankenstein in Baghdad) and Hassan Blasim are shaking up the literary world of the Middle East. They all write in Arabic and rely on translated versions to expose their work to the West.
“The Corpse Exhibition” by Hassan Blasim is a composite of his two previous publications (Al Maseeh Al Iraqi) The Iraqi Christ (2009) and (Mag noon Sahat al Horreya) The Madman of Freedom Square (2012), which I read a few months ago in the original Arabic. Both works have been translated by Jonathan Wright and were awarded literary prizes in the UK. The translation is spot on; Wright captures the ethos of the stories without losing nuance or subtlety of the original meaning.
The book is a compilation of 14 grim, brutal and often lurid, occasionally funny, stories of wartime Iraq, recounted in the first person from the Iraqi perspective. The story-tellers slip between reality and a phantasmagoric existence in a Kafkaesque world of Borgesian tales, where reason becomes madness and insane behavior is commonplace. The horror is wrapped in magical realism akin to the neo-gothic writings of the late Roberto Bolano (1953-2003) or Julio Cortazar(1914-84).
Blasim born in Baghdad in 1973, is a filmmaker, writer and poet who ran afoul of Saddam Hussein because of a controversial documentary “The Wounded Camera” and had to flee his homeland in 2000. After his peregrinations through several countries he is ultimately settled in Finland since 2004. He has a unique perspective of his people’s experience surviving the horrors of commonplace daily brutal violence by adopting a fatalistic outlook and a nihilistic attitude.
The book begins with the title story of a man recruited, by a non-political group, to be an assassin, with the stipulation that he exhibits the victims’ corpses in artistic fashion. The collection ends with “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes”, the doomed garbageman, Salim, who escapes to the Netherlands, changes his name to Carlos Fuentes and assimilates into the society, but is ultimately done in by his nightmares.
All the stories are fictitious; they are replete with assassinations, kidnappings, car explosions, beatings, mutilations and rapes of women and boys - yet the savagery is mitigated by mystical subversive occurrences or a supernatural phenomenon of a dark fairy tale. There are no happy endings.
"We have a saying that every Iraqi has five good scary stories," Mr. Blasim says. "So we have a lot of scary stories" and adds,”after several decades of dictatorship, economic sanctions and war, Iraqis have around 150 million horror stories to tell.”
Blasim borrows from these stories to fill the rest of the collection. “The Killers and the Compass” describes how Abu Hadid and his younger brother terrorize their neighborhood. The story of the “Hole” is about a man who falls into a dark hole, where he meets an ancient jinni (or spirit). A dead journalist narrates how he appropriated a dead soldier’s work in “An Army Newspaper”. Daniel, is “The Iraqi Christ” who gets premonitions from the itch in his crotch, and the two “blonds” who mysteriously appeared in the desolate Baghdad neighborhood of Darkness District are the subject of “The Madman of Freedom Square”. In “The Song of the Goats” one of the contestants, on a radio show about horrific stories, says,”If I told my story to a rock, it would break its heart.” The story of the ambulance driver who was kidnapped and serially sold by several rival political groups, as told in “The Reality and the Record” is one of the book’s best.
The narration is descriptive, raw, unnerving and vulgar. The writing is uneven and the stories seem to improve in complexity and sophistication as the collection progresses. The first story is brief and simplistic when compared to the intricate maturity of the last one. An undertone of bitterness permeates the collection, in spite of the surreal absurdist premise.
This book is not for everyone, but may be of interest to sociologists and historians for its perspective of the effect of years of brutal dictatorship, devastating war and its aftermath on civil society. It may also appeal to readers who appreciate the surrealistic magical realism of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Junot Diaz, Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez.