Gruesome. Macabre. Visceral. Telling.
The words needed to describe this collection of stories of Iraq by the expatriated Hassan Blasim all share a common theme. These aren’t stories for the faint of heart. These aren’t tales of sweetness or beauty. These are tales that communicate a blunt disregard for life by those that must live amidst a ravaged and crumbled society. As alluded by the title story, these stories exhibit the corpse, not life.
And yet, despite the grit and brutality on display in this body of fictional works, there is an eye-opening importance to this collection. Art serves many necessities, and at its best the written art-form inspires the reader with a new perspective that increases empathy and understanding. Blasim has succeeded in that endeavor; for despite the display of brutality in these stories, he is a writer capable of penning with a narrative voice that remains in touch with both humanity and consideration. For example consider this passage:
“The magic of words was like rain that quenched the thirst in my soul, and for me life became an idea and a dream.” (117, A Thousand and One Knives)
That passage was from a semi-magical tale about a group of unique friends that include a paraplegic soccer coach name Jafar who lost his legs in the Iraq-Iran war, Jafar’s sister-in-law, a butcher, and the narrator who was once a player on Jafar’s soccer team. The group each possess unique abilities to cause knives to disappear, with the exception of the sister-in-law’s ability to make knives appear. Jafar makes a living selling pornography on the black market, but he is inevitably arrested and tortured by the police for his secular profession. As the police attempt to cut off his arms (to punish him since he apparently did not learn god’s message when he lost his legs) he causes their knives to disappear, rending them unable to cut him. The police profess him a devil and ultimately amputate his arms with bullets instead of knives and then set fire to him. The reflection of his torture is told with a straightforward sincerity, reflecting that this is something that just happens to men such as him. Rather than succumb to sorrow for his lost friend, the narrator gives him new life by naming his newborn son Jafar.
Not all of the stories in this collection use magical devices to achieve an effective narrative impact. Many of the stories are blunt in their realism, while others have an otherworldly voice.
The opening and title story, The Corpse Exhibition, begins the collection from the otherworldly realm. The Corpse Exhibition is a first person monologue that spoken to a voiceless listener petitioning to step down from his role as artistic murderer. As the narrator describes with pride, the artistic murderer profession is a class of men who kill and put their victim’s bodies on display in unique situations, such as cutting off limbs and hanging them from electrical wires or using colored thread to hang organs in different and ironic locations. These murderers aren’t terrorists or fanatical Islamists, they serve a higher cultural need since they have an artistic pleasure in their work. As the narrator ultimately expresses his displeasure at the listener’s desire to quit the profession, it becomes apparent that the listener is the next victim to put on display.
The fantastic realm of The Corpse Exhibition is contrasted by the very real story presented in The Iraqi Christ, which reveals a man who is forced to set off a suicide bomb in order to spare his mother’s life. The straightforward progression of The Iraqi Christ is more chilling than the gruesome nature of the otherworldly narration of the The Corpse Exhibition because the existential choice to use a bomb to kill oneself and bystanders in order to save the life of a loved one is somehow believable and real.
There are a total of fourteen stories in this slim book and each tale is captivating with page-turning intensity. The few words I have shared above are only vague expressions of the grim, but necessary feelings that came over me as I read these stories. Why is it that the gruesome words in print can affect the mind so greatly and why did I succumb to the compelling need to return to Blasim’s vision again and again? The answer to that may be catharsis or thanksgiving that I live in a more peaceful world unable to imagine the horrors expressed in this book. But somehow that visceral horror is necessary and satisfying through the realization that these stories are fictional and artistic representations intended as reflections of a life unlived.