Iraq is not a place we feel we must imagine. Since 2003 the country has been full of cameras and journalists as well as tanks, conducting interviews and documenting the horror. We are all too familiar with images of bombed mosques, masked men with rifles and Baghdad in flames. It can be easy to believe we know Iraq pretty well.
But how it feels to be Iraqi is not a story told often enough. In Hassan Blasim's first collection of stories, translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright, shafts of light are cast into dark lives of people betrayed successively by leaders, occupiers and insurgents. There is a savagery to these characters, inspired by the traumas of the Iran-Iraq war, the sanctions of the 1990s (which left the country broke and hungry) and the explosive bloodshed of post-invasion Baghdad. This slim collection reveals the way Iraqi life is even bleaker and more brutal than the pyrotechnics of warfare suggest.
The tales veer from bizarre to lifelike, full of devilish details and macabre depictions of daily life. One story describes an imaginary collective that makes public art from cadavers. In another, an ambulance driver discovers sacks of heads hacked from bodies--a reality in Iraq from 2005 to 2007. One is left with the sense that Iraq's people have stretched their capacity to be horrified to such an extent that an author must struggle to create something too gory to be believed.
Despair and paranoia leak out in digressions. "Every child that's born is just an extra burden on the ship that's about to sink," says a freakish artist in "The Corpse Exhibition". Mass murder is gossiped about over groceries, and new life seems pointless and unreal. In a military-uniform factory under Saddam, the sewing girls have eyes "like security cameras". In "Ali's Bag", the simplest and best story of the collection, a mother is "the victim of a depraved male world beyond hope." Summing up the miserable lot of millions, the narrator says, "It would be easy to forget that God exists if you could experience a single day in the life of an Iraqi mother."
The war is yet another chapter of a recent history that has left Iraqis bereaved and bitter. The citizens of this big and strategically crucial country have suffered more than they can bear, and are left with a warped way of looking at the world. But despite big bombs and fresh bloodshed in Baghdad, interest in Iraq is fading. The news machine has shifted its attention to Afghanistan, and Iraqis are being left to fend for themselves. Blasim's collection reminds us that anything could still happen there. Iraq's story must still be told, and we need Iraqi voices like Blasim's to tell it.
"The Madman of Freedom Square" (Comma Press), by Hassan Blasim,
translated by Jonathan Wright, out now; Carcanet Press will release the book in the US in April 2010
~ ALICE FORDHAM