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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Iraqi Christ - Hassan Blasim (translated by Jonathan Wright) - Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014

Could you possibly imagine Gabriel Garcia Marquez being in Iraq? The magic realism spun into stories containing assassination attempts, decrepit hospitals, insurgents kidnapped and other Iraqi atrocities.

Hassan Blasim’s “The Iraqi Christ” contains 14 short stories set in Iraq or Finland or in some cases I don’t know where (it’s not important).  The title story itself (The Iraqi Christ) is about a soldier who can predict the future and as a result is given the nickname “Christ”, of course he is one of the most popular members of the regiment, leading people away from sabotage or air raids. However what choice does he make when having to choose between his own life and that of a loved one?

Like “The Corpse Washer” from the same prize list, we are transported to the heart of Iraq, a country under siege:

My voice was reminiscent of the city’s own symphony of mediocrity, the soulless, broken music produced by the machine of life: those sounds they have spattered us with shamelessly since childhood; their symphony that starts squeaking early in the morning, in shopping centres, banks, universities, hospitals, parliament buildings, bars and restaurants. The sounds of human ignominy. They’re incapable of loving each other so how can they understand out love for them? I felt that my mind was packed with sounds – the voices on buses and trains, the noises in planes and ships, the sound of domestic disputes, insults, abuse, the whistle of bullets, shouting, screaming, weeping, the chants of environmental protesters. Applause at the Peace Prize award ceremony at a time when new wars are breaking out in new hotspots, the sound of cars crashing, car bombs exploding, the cars of thieves, an ambulance, a bank truck loaded with bundles of banknotes, a fire engine. The sounds of mosques and churches, of Friday sermons and homilies, of group sex and glass breaking, sounds coming in the right ear and sounds going out the left ear. If we were deaf creatures – us and those humans – perhaps the world would be less painful. There are only two kinds of sound that are good for bringing about peace: the songs of the forest and music.

But unlike “The Corpse Washer” this is filled with fantasy, we have a story about a person who falls into a hole only to meet a djinni  (an Arabic supernatural creature) and the corpse of a Russian soldier from the Russian/Finland wars. We have a rabbit which lays an egg, a barfly returning home to find a wolf in his 4th floor apartment, a group who can make knives disappear (and only one who can make them reappear). This is magic realism with a touch of agro.

Two years ago I was assigned to read books in order to find out what the knives meant, and I soon came to the idea that the knives were just a metaphor for all the terror, the killing and the brutality in the country. It’s a realistic phenomenon that is unfamiliar, and extraordinary game that has no value, because it is hemmed in by definite laws.

This collection of short stories is not an easy read, with metaphor throughout and if you don’t have a full appreciation of the horror and brutality that is Iraq some of the nuances could be lost (I’m sure there is a level that I completely lost). But this is an amazing collection, taking the shocking and the Kafkaesque style and throwing it in the face of a horrific war. If magic realism is your style then I can’t recommend this collection highly enough, another amazing Arabic work set in Iraq – I’m privileged to have come across two magnificent works in one year from what is becoming a very solid list of translated fiction.

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wecallupon said...

I thought of Marquez as well when reading this one ,some of these stories are so inventive I loved the discussion with the doctor really pushed so many buttons with that one ,all the best stu31

JacquiWine said...

I really liked the mix of the imaginary and the tangible in these stories. Loved 'The Hole' and 'A Wolf' - almost hallucinatory at times. It sounds as if The Corpse Washer will make for an interesting comparison with this one.