Posts Tagged ‘jokes for the gunmen’

Jokes for the Gunmen

March 23, 2019

The title of Mazen Maarouf’s Man Booker International Prize long-listed short story collection (translated by Jonathan Wright), Jokes for the Gunmen, gives a fair indication of its contents as the twelve stories within generally combine a sense of ever-present threat with surreal humour. Maarouf is a Palestinian-Icelandic writer who lived in Beiruit before moving to Iceland, a fact that might explain why so many of the stories adopt a child’s perspective.

This is certainly true of the title story, which is also the collection’s longest at thirty-eight pages (most are much shorter, the shortest being ‘Curtain’ at five pages). The sporadic violence of the setting of many of the stories is immediately identified:

“We could hear gunfire from time to time, but we grew used to it, as one grows used to the honking of passing cars.”

In this atmosphere “power was the most important subject” and, at school, the students boast of “how their father beat them”:

“These stories illustrated the power each father had in his household.”

When the narrator discovers that his own father has been seen being beaten up in the street by the gunmen he sets out to re-establish his father’s power. He attempts to provoke his father with no success, and then begins to injure himself and blame these injuries on his father, but the other pupils are not convinced. Soon the story takes the kind of surreal turn we will come to expect as he concocts a series of schemes to prevent his father being assaulted, such as selling his twin brother’s organs to the gunmen, acquiring a glass eye for his father in the belief that this will frighten the gunmen into leaving his father alone, and hiring bodyguards for his father.

A similar tone is found in ‘Gramophone’, where the father also remains at some distance despite being at the centre of the story his son is telling. Here the father is employed as a ‘gramophone operator’ in a bar:

“He spent hours and hours behind the bar, turning then handle of a Berliner gramophone from 1900 – there was no electricity and the bar was usually lit by candles.”

The father is the lone survivor of the bombing of the bar, but loses both his arms. Later, he requests that the narrator donate one of his arms – “They said on television that it’s medically possible.” The narrator’s reaction to this (“I didn’t feel angry or disappointed. I was just sad”) sums up the tone of much of the collection.

In ‘Matador’ it is an uncle who is the adult male character:

“My uncle died three times in the space of one week.”

On the first occasion he is revived by the narrator punching the soles of his feet – “I got the idea from Rocky in the film.” The narrator is also present on his second resurrection, when he is attempting to dress him for the funeral. These deaths are presented humorously, with the narrator at one point commenting:

“His repeated deaths had made him bad-tempered.”

But the story’s strangeness lies, rather, in the uncle’s obsession with being a matador, which has led him to strangle cows with his bare hands in the local slaughterhouse. It is this, his stifled dream, which eventually kills him.

These stranger elements – as had been said of Latin American magical realism – have likely been lifted from reality, as, for example, the cow which wanders into the bombed cinema where civilians have been sheltering in ‘Cinema’. Maazan perhaps draws attention the danger of this in ‘Biscuits’ where he attempts to convince his mother that a man who they saw crossing a busy motorway was unharmed as he had the power to turn every car he touched to biscuit. The mother is unconvinced:

“The old man was dead and covered in blood. He’d made a desperate attempt to block the motorway, but a car ran him over. I didn’t see any biscuits.”

The story, however, is used to convince the care home that his mother has Alzheimer’s, perhaps warning us not to be distracted by the quirkiness of what has gone before. Interestingly the story forms a bridge between those set in war-torn Beirut and those, like ‘Other People’s Dreams’ and ‘Aquarium’ where the surreal, rather than the atmosphere of violence, dominates.

Overall, Jokes for the Gunmen is an accomplished debut which suggests a writer who is equally adept at observing and imagining. Whether it will make the short-list is difficult to predict as some of the pieces are slight in comparison to others and tonally it does not have an enormous range. Despite this, Maazan is a clearly a writer to watch out for, and hopefully his work will now be experienced by a wider audience.

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