Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq - depicting the psyche of war

book review

Hassan Blasim's short stories capture the grim reality of a conflict-ravaged Iraq

Book: The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq
Author: Hassan Blasim
Translated by: Jonathan Wright

It may not be the best idea to judge a book by its cover, but it's hard not to form an opinion based on the black-as-death cover and less-than-cheery title of Hassan Blasim's short story collection The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq. In this case though, the first impression proves to be quite accurate. Set against a backdrop of war, the tales in this body of fictional work are beset with depravity and devoid of happy endings.

Death and decadence are the norm in Blasim's Iraq, a land overshadowed by strife and conflict where everyone has an increasingly shocking story to tell. Darkness reigns in these 14 yarns that have been culled from two previous publications by the Iraqi-born author who was persecuted during Saddam Hussein's regime and eventually fled to Finland in 2004, where he now lives. Originally written in Arabic, the text has been translated into English by Jonathan Wright, who himself was held hostage in Lebanon in 1984 for two weeks before he managed to escape from captivity.

The background of both the writer and translator add perspective to the often harrowing incline of the storytelling. Executions, torture, murder, explosions, premonitions, and visions are some of the topics that appear. The subjects are mostly soldiers, terrorists, victims, refugees, and spirits, and they don't always serve as reliable narrators.

A surrealist bend often accompanies the underlying reality as the writer delves into macabre settings filled with troubled souls. There's a myriad of thoughts on offer here. The title story 'The Corpse Exhibition', for instance, sees an assassin detailing the 'art' of creating corpse exhibits by displaying the victims' remains in creative ways. 'An Army Newspaper' finds the spirit of a literary editor explaining what led to his death after he took credit for a dead soldier's story. In 'The Song of the Goats', a child grows up bearing the burden of having killed his brother by pushing him into a septic tank. A man finds himself trapped with a jinn in 'The Hole'. A soldier has premonitory powers in 'The Iraqi Christ'. A group that can make knives disappear and then reappear is the subject of 'A Thousand and One Knives'. And an Iraqi immigrant tries to make a life for himself in Holland but is haunted by strange dreams in 'The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes'.

The accounts reflect the violence the country has faced during the last few decades and the impact this has had on its populace. The characters are in such a rush to tell their stories that they don't have time to deliver their accounts with poise and eloquence. This abrupt style might not be graceful, but it suits their tragedies which are riddled with obscenity and jarring developments. The grotesque imagery does make an impact, but its gratuitousness is also disturbing and distracting.

Based on both its subject matter and style, it is hardly surprising that the reception to Blasim's work has been divisive. The translations of his stories have won several awards in the West, but his reception in the Middle East hasn't been as enthusiastic; a heavily edited Arabic version of his stories received an outright ban in Jordan. Readers too are likely to find his style either captivating or repulsive. The content of the book is very confronting, and definitely not for the faint of heart. War is anything but a pleasant topic, and Blasim's depiction of its consequences on the human psyche is uncomfortable to read. His characters are invariably damaged, and either suffering or causing others to suffer; their inability to escape the tragedies of their past continuously shadowing their present and often ensuring that they have no future.

Blasim's stance as an Iraqi voice relaying the horrors that have befallen the war-ravaged country automatically makes The Corpse Exhibition an important literary tome. But whether you find his blunt approach engaging will simply come down to individual taste. This book may be short, but it isn't a light, entertaining read. Instead it presents a troubling look at the darkness that has been cast upon a land and its people. The content isn't suitable for those who think that subtlety goes a long way, and there are several parts that these readers are likely to find offensive. But if you have the ability to work past the crude, graphic content and strong language, and explore the writing's depth, then you will probably find The Corpse Exhibition compelling.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 29th March, 2015 *

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