The Restless Brilliance of Hassan Blasim

My brief essay on Hassan Blasim in Kitaab, a site dedicated to the works of Asian writers.

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.

Read the full essay here.

Photo: Arablit.org

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Dead Man Talking — Hassan Blasim’s short stories

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq
Hassan Blasim
Penguin
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.

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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.

Of silences, screams, and fragrances: The Silence and The Roar by Nihad Sirees

 

The Silence and The Roar by Nihad Sirees
Other Press

Translated from the Arabic by Max Weiss

In a nameless city, a writer, once well known, now lives a near-wasted life. Rendered a pariah, his life oscillates between the uproar of a dictator’s tyranny and his seeking of an elusive silence. The dictator, identified simply as the Leader throughout The Silence and the Roar, a cracking satire by Nihad Sirees, is a classic autocrat — narcissistic and insecure to the core.

Fathi Chin, the thirty-one-year-old hero of the taut novel takes us through the city, oppressed both by hot weather and the fanatical demonstration of the Leader’s supporters who shout their lungs out in his praises to mark his twenty-year rule. That Sirees employs his hero as a writer is both clever and subversive. The cleverness shines in Fathi’s voice — humour laced with a bite so sharp it stings even as it makes you smile. The subversion is in Sirees satirizing, through Fathi, the political atmosphere he himself experienced in Syria, where the government banned his writing. Sirees has been living in exile since 2012.

Love for the Leader requires no thought; it’s axiomatic…You must love him for who he is, simply because he is, and any thought given to reason why might cause you to — God forbid — stop loving him one day because you might find…that his eyes blink continuously whenever he speaks…and your love for him may start to diminish, which is, after all, a very grave sin indeed.

Fathi finds his already stagnant station in life further complicated by factors outside his control and often beyond his understanding. During the demonstration, as he steps out of his house to meet his girlfriend, Lama, the police seizes his ID card. His attempts to get it back only land him into further ordeals. Then there is the twist in his family life — his widowed mother is set to marry a close aide of the Leader and tries to persuade Fathi to resume writing; the Leader’s lackey will support and protect him, she assures. But there’s a catch to this olive branch as the young writer would find out during his interrogation at the Party office where he goes to retrieve his ID card. The invitation for him to resume his craft is more of a command and comes with a rider — that he must speak positively of the Leader and his regime.

In its geographical anonymity, despite the alluded location being somewhere in the Middle East, 16113763The Silence and the Roar is striking in its mirroring of repressive dictatorships anywhere in the world. A lot of times, these dictators aren’t self-imposed but actually democratically elected. One only has to look at the rise in right-wing extremism and the resulting political climate around the globe to validate the pattern.

Megalomania, manipulation of power, total disregard for justice, suppressing dissent in any form, and, in the 21st century, a complete and post-truth control of the media apparatus, down to the latest technological tools — Sirees is able to map, with remarkable brevity and acerbic wit, the entire trajectory of an authoritarian regime.

For me, one of the most telling scenes in the book–not because of what happens in it but the despondency it conveys–is when Fathi carries an elderly woman injured in the demonstrations and brings her to a hospital. He’s badly injured himself, too, and learns from the doctor treating him that the woman was already dead by the time she was brought in. At one point, the doctor presses Fathi, the famous writer, to give him a name for the tragedy that has gripped the country.

“Naming can satisfy a need, it can shorten a conversation that otherwise might go on for hours. Tell me, I’m begging you!”

…”Surrealism, Surrealism,” I found myself repeating.

He received the word from my lips…stared up at the ceiling and hissed repeatedly, “Surrealism, yes, Surrealism. That’s it.”

Through all his travails, if there’s one door that promises both hope and an escape for Fathi, it is Lama and the love she embodies. Her sensual and explicit display of affection is for Fathi, the antithesis of the regime’s demonic suppression of free speech and independent thought. The vividness of Lama’s physicality is possibly the most ethereal and manifest expression of creativity for him. If Lama exhibits little inhibition in baring her sexuality, his lover, the narrator, doesn’t hold himself from letting that beauty spill through his words.

This love is also the closest that Fathi will get to experience to the silence he seeks. This silence isn’t the absence of noise but rather the space against which one can appreciate the most mundane and perhaps thus, the most comforting of sounds — the cooing of a pigeon, an owl’s hooting, a muezzin’s early morning call to prayer. As Fathi observes, “…the most beautiful thing in the entire universe is the silence that allows us to hear soft and distant sounds.”

In the backdrop of today’s Syria and the cacophony surrounding which faction is on the right side of history, such a silence may not just be desirable but also prescriptive.