As far as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize goes, Hassan Blasim has a perfect record. His first collection of short stories to be translated into English, The Madman of Freedom Square, was long listed in 2010; his second, The Iraqi Christ, has been long listed this year (both are courtesy of Comma Press and translator Jonathan Wright). Unfortunately The Madman of Freedom Square was one of three books on the 2010 long list that I didn’t read – something I regret now that I’ve read The Iraqi Christ. Blasim is an Iraqi writer (and film maker) who now lives in Finland. A selection of his stories has been repackaged in the US as “the Iraq War from an Iraqi perspective” in The Corpse Exhibition, but this volume shows that there is more to Blasim than that.
It’s true that a number of stories focus on Iraq and the effects of the war. ‘The Iraqi Christ’ is a soldier who, rumour has it, miraculously avoids danger:
“The soldiers joined him as he left the trench, jostling to keep close to him as if he were a shield against missiles.”
His death, however, occurs in the war’s aftermath when he detonates a suicide bomb in a restaurant to save his mother’s life. ‘The Green Zone Rabbit’, the story of an assassination squad, also ends with an explosion, and ‘Crosswords’ begins with one:
“It was a double explosion. First they detonated a taxi in front of the magazine’s office. If it hadn’t been for the concrete barriers the building would have collapsed. The second vehicle was a water melon truck packed with explosives.”
However, Blasim is not interested in writing reportage and his stories pulse with invention and wit (I would use the word ‘playful’ if the subject matter weren’t so serious). The narrator of ‘The Iraqi Christ’, for example, is dead (“I was killed by friendly fire, myself”). In ‘Crosswords’ the main characters, a survivor of the explosion, finds that his body has also been possessed by a policeman who died.
Blasim’s interest in story-telling is signalled from the very first line:
“People were waiting in queues to tell their stories.”
Blasim places the story he wants to tell within the context of a story-telling competition, creating the sense that we have throughout the volume that these are just a few of the many stories that might be told. Blasim himself also appears in his fiction – for example at the end of ‘A Wolf’, which is presented as if told to him. In ‘Why Don’t You Write a Novel?’ other characters claim he is the story’s narrator going under another name (perhaps echoing the way asylum seekers must sometimes adopt a new identity):
“You’re an arsehole and a fraud. Your name’s Hassan Blasim and you claim to be Salem Hussein.”
Another character talks to him about a story which appears in this volume.
Finally, there are elements of magical realism. In ‘Sarsara’s Tree’ Blasim combines the story of a NGO with that of a grieving woman returning to her village only for strange trees to appear: “Every tree killed the ground for half a mile around it in a circle.” In ‘A Thousand and One Knives’ we find characters who can make knives disappear and appear at will.
Blasim is clearly a sophisticated and gifted writer. I suspect that one volume of short stories will make it onto the short list – this may be it. Regardless, if you are interested in the form, then you should read it.