The black-as-death cover of Hassan Blasim’s new collection The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq implies that here, you’ll find the teeth-gritting truth. That’s not quite it, though. These stories eschew the journalistic real in favor of the horrifying surreal.
Blasim’s slim new volume gives us an asylum-seeker’s experience as a kidnapping victim, a young man’s admiration for his murderous older brother, and an unwilling suicide bomber’s love for his mother. But Blasim also throws in a magic ring, a disappearing-knife trick, and an egg-laying rabbit. Nightmarish stories evoke Kafka and Borges, and his characters invoke Pessoa, Fuentes, and One Thousand and One Nights. The result is fourteen tautly written stories-within-stories, Blasim’s fervent response to recent Iraqi history.
In Jonathan Wright’s translation from the Arabic, Blasim writes vividly and directly, though occasionally gracelessly. An apt simile—“his chest wheezed like my uncle’s old tractor”—and well-paced paragraph share the page with language hurrying us on to the next scene. But for the most part, this purposefulness suits the collection, which abounds with eager storytellers—first-person narrators, or fellow Iraqis who have their ear. Scheherazade is Blasim’s spiritual guide here: It’s not unusual for one character’s story to bleed into another’s, and then into another’s. The black pages dividing these stories double as full stops, barriers that keep the voices from running together.
Indeed, drawn selectively from his two collections published in the UK, The Madman of Freedom Square (2009) and The Iraqi Christ (2013), these stories share genetic similarities. Instead of flaunting Blasim’s range, they play with the same handful of devices and tropes. The result is a double-edged sword: The less daring stories get lost in the mix. Yet taken as a whole, the collection provides a fascinating series of permutations—different constructions made of the same raw materials. Storytelling is one of those essential elements.
In “The Song of the Goats,” for instance, people line up to enter a storytelling contest on the radio station Memory Radio. A moderator reminds participants that their stories don’t need to be about “war and killing.” This is Blasim’s world, though: Everyone has a war story—even the dead. In “An Army Newspaper,” a government journalist takes credit for a fallen soldier’s short story. As if in retaliation, hundreds and then thousands of short stories by the deceased flood his offices. The journalist burns them “in hopes that the war would end and that this madness of khaki sperm would also stop.” One war follows another; the stories will never be stopped.
Despite being rooted in war—the Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait, the U.S. invasion—war itself is only part of the tableau. Blasim’s characters share a need to reconcile the surreal experience of war with the everyday. In “The Corpse Exhibition,” a character frames it this way: “A film actress licking an ice cream might give rise to dozens of photographs and news reports that reach the most remote village ravished by famine in this world, this grindstone of screaming and dancing.” How is it that these extremes coexist in this world? How does one respond to such disparate realities?
This character’s response: murder.
Blasim’s response: stories.
Born in Baghdad in 1973, Blasim was persecuted under Saddam Hussein’s regime. He moved to Iraqi Kurdistan, where he made films under the pseudonym Ouazad Osman, and then moved to Finland in 2004. “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes” relies heavily on Blasim’s biography. The only story in the collection that doesn’t stray into the first-person, this is the tale of Salim Abdul Husain, who moves to Holland and adopts what he thinks is a generic Spanish name: “Carlos Fuentes.” But having taken a ring off a dead Iraqi, “Fuentes” cannot escape dreams from his country. His identity blurs. Is he a Dutch national now, or an Iraqi living in exile? Is he Fuentes or Husain? Or is he Blasim? The author joins his characters, becoming one more storyteller in the crowd.
While Blasim undermines his role as the author, his characters seek the mastermind behind the mounting horrors they face. In “The Reality and the Record,” a group of terrorists kidnap an ambulance driver and sell him to other groups, who force him to impersonate various characters for their videotaped threats. The ambulance driver, now a refugee, acknowledges the incredulity of his tale, yet he swears someone had to have been pulling the strings: “Perhaps there was a secret power working in league with a human power to play a secret game for purposes too grand for a simple man like me to grasp.” Who created this terrible game? The question strains him to the point of madness.
Indeed, if there is a secret mastermind—a God—he is ambivalent. In “The Song of the Goats,” the protagonist’s little brother drowns in a septic tank, his mother goes mad, and his uncle dies driving him to safety. He himself, ensconced in a pickle barrel, tumbles to the bottom of a hill. “The rays of the sun moved and fell right in my eye. I pissed in my pants inside that barrel, appalled at the cruelty of the world to which I was returning. The goatherd called out to his flock and one of the goats butted the barrel.”
Most of these stories bear such brutal ends. Yet, as brief as they are, they also tend to have more kinetic energy than emotional heft. Blasim loves a twist ending, which can be hit or miss. “The Hole” left me feeling, like its title, hollow, and even once I’d mulled over the implications of “The Corpse Exhibition”—art’s response to war—I wasn’t sure I’d remember the story in a few months. Luckily, Blasim also stumbles on the occasional, arresting detail: In one story, the narrator tells us how the goal posts at the local soccer field were made from stakes used to tie up corpses. “My father broke down when one of the children said, ‘We’re still missing one goalpost. Maybe they’ll execute another one and we can have the stake.’” “A Thousand and One Knives” is another rare story. It follows the fellowship that develops among four people with a rare gift: they can make knives disappear. Although they can’t end the war or save their friends—even when the knives are gone, guns continue killing—their bonds hold the story together.
Still, Blasim isn’t writing about hope. His stories can in fact at times feel grotesquely overburdened with violence. And we can love him for that. “What matters to you is the horror,” as the ambulance driver says. But there’s something else at play here as well.
As American readers, we have this luxury: For us, war is out of the ordinary—war is something that happens, literally, “over there.” Blasim’s characters have no “over there.” Violence is in their day-to-day. Suicide bombers, executions, exile—these qualify as the quotidian. And so, if a story is about the out-of-the-ordinary, how perfect that Blasim’s stories should focus on the truly extraordinary: the over-the-top, the unbelievable, the magical. When everyone has a war story, how else to stand out from the crowd?
So the storytellers gather in Blasim’s pages; they want to see which story will stick. We can demand that they take fuller breaths, that they wait their turn before speaking. We can ask that they linger over the raw moments, that they explain the logic behind the djinni, the reason for the bombs.
Or we can listen.