The comedy of war

Camilla Greene reviews an unflinching new collection of short stories set in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq,The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright, Penguin Books.

Iraqi fiction has not shied away from addressing the catalogue of horrors endured by the country over the past decade. But in a new collection of short stories, Hassan Blasim takes stock of his country’s collective pain with extraordinary results. The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq consists of 14 short stories, from Iraq and Europe, all told during the second Gulf War. They are culled from two earlier collections, The Madman of Freedom Square (2009) and The Iraqi Christ (2013). 

The stories range from pulp fiction style tales of trigger-happy teens, to nightmarish visions of post-war trauma told by a human circus of mostly charmless heroes. Hostages and hit-men, soldiers and kidnappers rub shoulders, each displaying an increasingly violent post-occupation view of Iraq.

Blasim, 41, is a filmmaker and co-editor of Arabic literary website Iraq Story, which publishes Arabic fiction. He was born in Baghdad in 1973. In 2000 he set off to find asylum in Europe. He was granted asylum in Finland in 2004. The recipient of two English PEN Translation awards, the first Arabic version of his short stories appeared in print in 2012 but was immediately banned in Jordan because of its explicit content. This setback has, if anything, only added to Blasim's mystique. Just this month The Iraqi Christ was the first ever Arabic title to be shortlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP).

Blasim's stories are cartoonishly sadistic fables about the horrors of war. The Reality and the Record is the tale of a kidnapped ambulance driver who is traded like a piece of meat from one band of captors to another. Held for 18 months, he is forced to appear on camera sporting a farcical array of costumes, while confessing to all manner of outlandish crimes. Yet when he is released, everyone insists he was held for one night only. The ambulance driver begins to suspect the inhabitants of his world are conspiring to kill him. Blasim’s tragic farce ends with the ambulance driver being admitted to a mental asylum.

The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes deals explicitly with the identity-crises facing thousands of Iraqis exiled in Europe. Former rubbish-collector Salim Abdul Husain reinvents himself after gaining asylum in Holland. He swaps his Iraqi name for a Mexican one (a wry reference to the author Carlos Fuentes), marries a local Dutch woman, and does eveything he can to deny his Iraqi roots. But he can't shake off a recurring dream in which he is a sniper killing kids or a terrorist planting bombs in Amsterdam Square. Unable to face his past, he throws himself from his living room window and dies.

Part of the power of Blasim's writing is that it speaks beyond the cauldron of war. His stories are interested in what happens when a character's search for a predictable reality breaks down and when the world becomes a place where cruelty lurks on every corner. Over and over in Blasim's telling, an end to the suffering comes only in the form of suicide or insanity.

Blasim's approach is often brutal. His stories might feel as mindless and bloody as the last ten years of Iraqi history, yet the violence is not gratuitous. This is a work whose deceptively simple surface disguises an complex worldview. Like present day Iraq, Blasim’s characters teeter on the edge of insanity.


The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq is published in paperback by Penguin Books

Photo: Sabah Hamid/Reuters