A slightly edited version of this review was published at the Guardian.
Hassan Blasim, author of the acclaimed debut collection “The Madman of Freedom Square”, returns with fourteen more stories of profane lyricism, skewed symbolism and macabre romanticism. The qualities which distinguished the “Madman” are all here again in the opening pages of “The Iraqi Christ”: the sly self-referentiality of the frame – a story-telling competition hosted by a Baghdad radio station – the black comedy, the unexpected twists, and the sharp, disturbing images (a man “with no arms and a beard that almost reached his waist… deep in thought, like a decrepit Greek statue.”)
Like the “Madman”, this collection contains tales of war and migration, but these are more abstract, more difficult than the first, if possible stranger still. Treating casual cruelty, rape and murder, and common insanity, these sour cries from a land of generalised trauma don’t make easy bedtime reading. The processing of trauma, or the impossibility of such processing, is the collection’s central theme. Not only are stories dedicated to the dead, they are also narrated by the dead, concerned with death and the echoes of death in the souls of the living.
The subject matter is not exclusively Iraqi. Europe’s forests – with echoes of Grimm – loom as large as Baghdad’s broken streets. The title story, grimly ironic, is about a Christian soldier possessing uncanny powers of prediction who sacrifices himself so his mother may live. An extremist leader marches through with Purge The Earth of Devils tatooed on his forehead. Elsewhere, a narrator falls into a hole alongside a flesh-eating jinn who used to teach poetry in Baghdad. Another helps his brother bury a stranger alive. Characters slip into criminal perversity unwittingly, almost by accident, as spontaneously as the poisonous trees which, in “Sarsara’s Tree”, sprout from a bereaved woman’s gaze.
Blasim’s work is so unusual it’s hard to place. “A Thousand and One Knives”, as the title suggests, owes something to the heritage of the Nights and the ancient fantastic tradition of Arabic writing, now revived by the pains of Arab modernity, particularly in post-invasion Iraq. But “The Iraqi Christ” also seems to belong with the literature of Latin America, likewise struggling with contesting cultures, political violence and overbearing religion.
The first-person story “A Wolf”, though Kafkaesque in its basic premise, recalls Roberto Bolano with its itinerant tone, its bars, poems, and dreams. The collection is more generally Bolanesque in its visceral exuberance, and also Borgesian in its gnomic complexity. Both Latin writers share with Blasim a fascination with texts. Many of the characters here are avid, obsessive, idiosyncratic readers, and the stories are packed with theories of writing, from Saddam Hussain’s crude epigram “The pen can shoot bullets as deadly as the rifle”, via a student wondering why his country’s contemporary literature does not contain the fantasy genre, to “a man the size of an elephant” whispering in a narrator’s ear, “A story’s a story, whether it’s beautiful or bullshit.”
In interviews, Blasim says he isn’t interested in preserving the beauty of the formal Arabic language. His taboo-breaking starts with grammar and diction and reaches to a strictly unsentimental depiction of behavioural and moral filth. Consequently, he’s as troubling to mainstream Arabic literary culture as Joyce once was to the West. For a long time his writing was only accessible to the Arab world online (at www.iraqstory.com). Last year a diluted version of the “Madman” was finally published in Arabic, but was immediately banned in Jordan.
Whatever Blasim’s detractors claim, there’s much more to his writing than bad-tempered sensationalism. He’s a master of metaphor who is now developing his own dark philosophy, in which ‘normal life’ is not so much punctuated by war as constantly anticipating and echoing it, as if war is reality’s basic pattern. So a waiter mixes “the names of the dishes with the names of daily instruments of slaughter.” Hence: “One fragmentation stew. Two ballistic rice and beans..” A child bearing the burden of unintentional murder learns to watch people “like a sniper hidden in the darkness.” Horror lies, visible or concealed, even in children’s games. In one story scientists invent a game which they can’t control; it “rolls ceaselessly on and on through the curves of time.”
For Tolstoy, history is the “swarm life”, determined not by great men but by unseen divine forces. For Blasim, history is a matter of malignant coincidence and unthought-of consequence, a beast with its own momentum. Alongside his obvious disgust, Blasim approaches reality with a sense of awe and great mystery.