Hassan Blasim’s short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, opens with a crowd gathered at the headquarters of Memory Radio in Baghdad, ‘set up after the fall of the dictator’, to take part in a storytelling competition. Everyone believes their own stories are ‘stranger, crueller and more crazy’ than everyone else’s. But they are also all afraid that they will not have the chance to tell them, that a suicide bomber may ‘turn all these stories into a pulp of flesh and fire’.
Blasim’s book was published in 2013, when Iraq had already suffered a decade of violence after the US invasion. Since then, the country’s very existence has been called into question by the rise of the so-called Islamic State. How to hold the pieces of one’s identity and humanity together is, unsurprisingly, a major theme of contemporary Iraqi fiction. In Ahmed Saadawi’s novel Frankenstein in Baghdad (not yet available in English), the Iraqi capital is haunted by a monster created from the body parts of suicide bombing victims.
Blasim quickly plunges into his bizarre, shocking stories, and never revisits the framing device. The first full tale we get is of a man who was responsible for a terrible childhood accident: his younger brother drowned in a septic tank. ‘On more than one occasion I heard how life apparently advances, moves on, sets sail or, at worst, crawls slowly forward,’ the narrators says.
My life, on the other hand, simply exploded like a firecracker in the sky of God, a small flare in His mighty firmament of bombardment. I spent the remaining years of my childhood and adolescence watching everyone carefully, like a sniper hidden in the darkness. Watching and shooting. Against the horrors of my life I unleashed other nightmares, imaginary ones. I invented mental images of my mother and others being tortured, and in my school book I drew pictures of enormous trucks crushing the heads of children. I still remember the picture of the president printed on the cover of our exercise books. He was in military uniform, smiling, and under his picture were written the words: ‘The pen can shoot bullets as deadly as the rifle.’
This early passage is typical – fast, fluid, memorable – and touches on the book’s main concerns: the limitations of language, especially of metaphors, even as the author reaches for them; the relationship between trauma and the imagination.
Blasim left Baghdad for Iraqi Kurdistan in 1998, and emigrated to Finland in 2004. A film-maker, he has published one previous story collection, The Madman of Freedom Square. A selection of stories from both books was published in the US earlier this year as The Corpse Exhibition. The Iraqi Christ won the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Blasim’s tales are generally brutal and sometimes funny, with occasional bursts of real poignancy. A mentally disturbed character describes his intermittent feelings of passionate affection for the world:
I fell in love with the pen, a pure honest love for an angry pen lying next to the table leg. The pen of a beautiful young woman who’s gone to smoke a cigarette lies there alone, hating its short life. Every movement, doctor, every gesture, however simple and insignificant, gives me the love headache.
‘Dear Beto’ is narrated by a dog (or rather a creature that is mostly a dog but is also a human refugee; she is writing a letter of some kind to another dog, and has a passport as well as a chilly Finnish owner). The story is a confession of murder as well as a wounded diatribe against humans: ‘They’re incapable of loving each other so how can they understand our love for them?’
The last story, ‘A Thousand and One Knives’, tells of a circle of Baghdad residents who meet in secret after gradually discovering that they all have the power to make knives disappear. Blasim explores the consequences of this not particularly useful ability. One man needs to steal knives so he can make a living showing off his magical power in the market place. Another tries to cheat death by making the blades in his torturers’ hands disappear. After many years, the group discovers where all the disappearing knives are ending up. The narrator marries a woman who has a power to match his own. The story ends with an ambiguous image, intimating both an ongoing cycle of violence but also, counterintuitively, a chance of recovery and balance:
I kissed every pore of her body with passion and reverence as if she were a life that would soon disappear. When young Jaafar was five years old his gift emerged: Like his mother he could make knives reappear.