Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim came to me rather unremarkably. In the dead of Canada’s fierce winter in January 2017, I had a sudden desire to read and cook from conflict zones around the world. I say sudden, but given the blood-stained cloud that hangs over Syria, Yemen, Iraq and much of the Arab world and parts of Africa, this couldn’t have been all that abrupt a thirst. The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, Blasim’s debut short story collection, was one of the first books I borrowed from the library for my quest.
I didn’t make much of the simple black cover of The Corpse Exhibition…, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright. Nothing — not its blackness or even a statutory warning on the cover (had there been one) — could have prepared me for what lay inside. Such was the emotive force of Blasim’s words that despite the macabre scenarios they pressed between themselves, I kept turning the book’s pages with hypnotic urgency.
The sharpness of Blasim’s storytelling knife stabbed me with the very first story in the collection, titled The Corpse Exhibition. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the leader of an organization involved with curating corpse exhibitions, speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of the displays — the boss cites as a prime example the naked corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child, placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound on their bodies — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.
Even as he sets the stage with that opening story, Blasim primes the reader for the explosive brilliance that would subsequently erupt. With scathing candour, he reveals the lives of a people whose entire world is war — not only the external conflict raging around them, but a series of battles — against international sanctions that leaves them without electricity for 20 hours a day, avenging the killings of loved ones, and against one’s own fate and even conscience.
By the time they appear in a story in The Corpse Exhibition…, the characters’ lives are already irreparably fractured by continuous cycles of destruction. As ‘The Hole’ shows, in the bloodied history of war-ravaged countries, generations of dead cohabit with each other in holes from different ages, an endless pit of violence swallowing them. For the living, the physical reality of existence is that of a “darkness district,” a locality without electricity and with little to be joyful about in ‘The Madman of Freedom Square’.
In dark places, when reason stops making sense, humour isn’t just an alternative way of looking at things. For the people caught in these circumstances, comic relief in its barest form is a tool for self-preservation. A waiter in The Iraqi Christ, centered on a “human radar” who can foretell the enemy’s presence, mixes food names with references to the carnage all around as he serves dishes.
“He would call out orders such as “One explosive, mind-blowing, gut-wrenching kebab. One fragmentation stew. Two ballistic rice and beans.”
Every story in the collection is but a small universe in Blasim’s multiverse because, as the author would remind us in ‘The Reality and the Record’, “the world is all interconnected, through feelings, words, nightmares, and other secret channels…” Themes reappear as do characters and motifs, and also the grand Middle-Eastern apparatus of stories within stories.
The violence of trauma stalks the survivors of conflict zone everywhere. In two of Blasim’s stories, ‘The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes’, the last story in the collection, and ‘Don’t Kill Me, I Beg You. This is my Tree’ (not part of the collection), the characters have moved away from Iraq, in Holland and Finland (where Blasim now lives) respectively. But as their increasingly deranged psyche and tragic ends show, one can take a man out of a war zone, but one can’t take war out of that person.
Blasim has gone on record to say he doesn’t like borders (between nations). Nor do his stories. Despite an underpinning of dark reality, the stories in The Corpse Exhibition…dissolve magic and horror, dystopia and fairy tale with ink, or, more appropriately in the context of things, blood-in-water fluidity.
Blasim, described as “perhaps the greatest living writer of Arabic fiction” by The Guardian in 2010, continues to push borders and boundaries. In November 2016, he edited Iraq + 100, an anthology of stories featuring eclectic styles, including science fiction, allegory, and magic realism. To quote the publisher, Comma Press, the book “poses a question to ten Iraqi writers: what might your country look like in the year 2103 – a century after the disastrous American- and British-led invasion.”
Iraq hasn’t recovered from the throes of the devastation that invasion brought. It continues to be mired in sectarian conflicts, external attacks and extreme poverty. Who could possibly think of looking a hundred years into its future?
If anyone could, it would be Hassan Blasim.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Her website is bhaswatighosh.com.