:: Article

The language of disaster

By Max Dunbar.

The Iraqi Christ, Hassan Blasim, Comma Press 2013

At one point in Hassan Blasim’s startling new collection, the author is asked a question that writers of the short form hear over and over again: ‘Why don’t you write a novel, instead of talking about all these characters – Arabs, Kurds, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Bangladeshis and Africans? They would make for mysterious, traditional stories. Why do you cram all these names into one short story? Let the truth come to light in all its simplicity.’

In the interviews I subsequently read, the Iraqi writer tries again and again to face down the conundrum. To Thresholds magazine he said: ‘In a novel, you have to talk about everything, you have to know about everything. But a short story is like me – I don’t know anything about life.’ He told the New Statesman that ‘we need to express the disaster of our lives in the Arab world in a language that is bold, up to date and not afraid’. Blasim also regrets ‘the tedious and nauseating refrain about the beauty and sanctity of the Arabic language because it is the language of the Quran and of the great tradition of Arabic poetry.’ Instead he writes in a terse, unsettling but nevertheless lyrical style. There is the same queer mixture of clarity and disalignment you feel while reading Kafka’s short stories. It is the terrible clarity that comes with fear, where every particle of the street seems fresh and crisp, and it seems like these are your last impressions of the world.

The language of disaster is fragmentation. Violence fractures everything. The living legacy of dictatorship and war is present in every word of every line. A senseless, sprawling chaos of religious terror, Ba’ath repression and collateral damage forms an unnerving background to the collection, like a sports commentary delivered by a jabbering maniac. Blasim’s Iraq is a place where you can go out for milk and cigarettes and get blown up by a car bomb. The title story, narrated from the afterlife, is about an Iraqi conscript forced into becoming a suicide bomber. Another story, ‘The Song of the Goats,’ explores an inter-family conflict between two brothers, one an embittered and emasculated Iran/Iraq war veteran, the other working for Saddam’s secret police. Blasim says that ‘I have nine siblings, and all my family in Iraq went off to do different things. I left to be a writer, one of my brothers went to study religion, and one joined the police. And all of us, we have different opinions about families and about life.’ The truth is never simple. It’s as Rumi says, so often we believe we see the whole world, when in fact we are holding just a fragment of a shattered mirror.

Blasim offers a new take on an oral culture. ‘The Song of the Goats’ features a competition where Iraqis clamour to give the most harrowing take on the war, and ‘Sarsara’s Tree,’ is about a corrupt NGO official who spins emotive stories of starving Africans to finance unnecessary projects, only to find himself caught up in genuine and frightening village lore. But Blasim is at his best when he’s surreal. On the occasions a terrorist attack hits the UK, bystanders say, ‘It’s like something out of a film,’ and I used to think that was a reflection of Western ignorance, our protected postmodern consumerist lives, but maybe it’s the same for people who actually have to live in war zones, and the unreality just gets deeper and more intense, until it seems to cover everything. The author tells us: ‘Violence in the city is like a nightmare. It’s real and not real… And it’s like dreaming too.’ In ‘The Hole,’ Blasim’s most affecting piece, a shoplifter is chased out of a supermarket by random gunmen, and falls into a twisting warren. Already down the hole are an old man and a dead Russian soldier. They chat and banter, and the narrator quickly makes peace with his new home. Then, a woman falls into the hole. ‘A blood analysis robot was chasing me,’ she says.

This spring is the Iraq war’s tenth anniversary. In British newspapers and blogs we have had a barrage of sanctimonious commemorations, and Adrian Mole style demo nostalgia pieces for the Grand March of 2003. I was on that protest too, and it’s striking that so many people’s politics, at least on Iraq, haven’t moved an inch in ten years. Young writers including Owen Jones and Laurie Penny write about the march as if it were the defining event of a generation, but say little or nothing about the experiences of other young people of that generation – the average age on Telic operations was twenty-one – who actually went out there and fought to get a fascist dictatorship out of power. Still more disturbing is the absence of Iraqi voices from the debate. If free thinking Arab writers are rarely seen on leftwing platforms, the least we can do is read their fiction. And Blasim’s short stories are a great contribution to the literature of this troubled, bloodsoaked country.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 13th, 2013.