The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright
What is left when a place dies a thousand violent deaths?
A million stories sprout over the graveyard. Each narrator is a Scheherazade (of One Thousand and One Nights), except none of them is compelled to tell a tale for fear of being killed. Some of them have already crossed over to the other shore and even those still alive know death to be lurking around the corner. Yet the emotive force — mind-bending and magnetic — of the voices echoing through Hassan Blasim’s short stories forces the listener/reader to be pulled into their universes — macabre and enigmatic as they are.
I felt the sharp stab of Blasim’s storytelling knife in The Corpse Exhibition — the very first story in the collection. 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 boss of an organization curating the corpse exhibitions speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of displays — one of the top pieces the boss cites is that of the corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child both naked placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound — 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 erupt. With scathing candour, he takes the reader through 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. As he said in an interview:
They say to me, for example, “Your style is magical realist like Marquez.” And I say: “No, I write nightmare realism.”
For me, the fourth story in the collection is where Blasim begins the real — and astonishing — paint job for which he provides an enduring primer in the preceding chapters. An Army Newspaper begins with a stunning opening paragraph leading the reader into the mind of a dead narrator, formerly the curator of an army newspaper’s culture page. He experiences the most decisive shift in his career when he starts receiving stories from a soldier written in an “elevated literary style,” their subjects not focused on war. When he learns the soldier is dead, the curator sees an opportunity he can’t ignore — co-opting the dead soldier’s writing. His new reputation as an author brings the curator unprecedented acclaim. The fame comes at a cost, though. The stories, always handwritten in large elementary school notebooks, keep multiplying exponentially, “like a storm of locusts: today a hundred stories, tomorrow two hundred, and so on.” Unable to keep up with the volume of stories, the curator must resort to extreme steps, leading to tragic and irreversible self destruction — the intrinsic law of all wars.
This– conflicts rebounding on themselves–spring in Blasim’s stories as such a powerful concoction of language, imagination, and storytelling that despite the morbidity, one can see why the author is compared to literary greats such as Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Garcia Marquez and, in my mind, Sadat Hassan Manto.
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, blood-in-water fluidity.
In Crosswords, Blasim takes another audacious leap by having two voices, not one, tell the story. Both the voices speak in the first person, initially in apparent parallel streams, almost like the across and down grids of a crossword puzzle (Blasim’s repertoire of skills includes crossword puzzle writing), but increasingly closing the gap in the reader’s journey, until the two voices — of friends talking about a mutual dead friend — collapse and the puzzle is solved. Marwan –the dead friend in question, a crossword puzzle and astrology column writer in a magazine, is tortured in the brief period leading up to his suicide, when he receives a head injury in a car bomb explosion and feels a policeman who died on the spot has taken hold of his body and mind.
By the time they appear in a story, the characters’ lives are already irreparably fractured by continuous cycles of destruction. As evidenced in The Hole, 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 around 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 overall multiverse because, as the author would remind us “the world is all interconnected, through feelings, words, nightmares, and other secret channels…” in The Reality and the Record. Themes reappear as do characters and motifs, as also the grand Middle-Eastern apparatus of stories within stories.
My favourite story in the collection, despite the unfairness of picking any one of the fourteen brilliant stories, was A Thousand and One Knives. Arguably the only story to end on a hopeful note, it is an endearing, if heartbreaking fable of how ordinary people still connect with each other over coffee, soccer, and magic in the face of total gloom. The story is about a group of friends who make knives disappear. Only one of them — the narrator’s wife — can make them reappear. Eventually the group disintegrates, much like all life in strife-torn regions, and its leader Jaafar is brutally killed. His memory lives on as the narrator names his new born after his beloved friend. At five, little Jaafar shows the same talent as his mother’s — making knives reappear. Symbolically, the woman and the child bring order to and save a world torn to shreds by decades of mindless violence.
Through his stories, Blasim tracks the entire journey of war survivors, right up to their fight for and struggles of a refugee life. While The Reality and the Record deals with the many versions of personal history a claimant keeps in his pocket to be granted refugee status, The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes, the last story in the collection, is a gripping example of horror nearly normalized through fantasy. The story is about Salim Abdul Hussain, an Iraqi cleaner who adopts the name of Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican writer while seeking asylum in Holland. Carlos does everything to shed his Iraqi identity, down to learning Dutch, marrying a Dutch woman and becoming a citizen of Holland. Yet, his original identity comes to haunt him via recurring nightmares. In his efforts to control his dreams, Carlos makes bizarre lifestyle changes. Yet, despite everything, the nightmare — an outcome of his deranged state — pushes him to the edge as he jumps off his window in an exact replay of the last dream he has. The story ends with scathing irony — of Fuentes living, and dying, an Iraqi.
“Perhaps Fuentes would have forgiven the Dutch newspapers, which wrote that an Iraqi man had committed suicide at night…instead of writing that a Dutch national had committed suicide.”
Translated into English crisply by Jonathan Wright, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq is stellar and significant in its scope and treatment. In my experience as a reader, with this collection, Hassan Blasim has created new benchmarks both for short stories and conflict literature.
Move over, magic realism. Nightmare realism is here.