Monday, 1 April 2013

'The Iraqi Christ' by Hassan Blasim (Review)

A new Comma Press publication of translated fiction is always exciting, and another collection has just been released.  It is a second group of stories from Iraqi-in-exile Hassan Blasim, whose first collection (The Madman of Freedom Square) was longlisted for the 2010 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (and, apparently, banned in Jordan...).  It will be interesting to see how this one goes - both critically and politically...

The Iraqi Christ (translated by Jonathan Wright, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a series of tales set both in Iraq and overseas.  It is a collection set against the chaos of life in a country where normal rules seldom apply and people get on with matters as best they can - easier said than done when money, jobs, electricity and water are in short supply.  A mixture of realistic and slightly-more fantastic tales allows Blasim to paint a vivid picture of his mother country.

From the very start, we know we are in dangerous territory:
"People were waiting in queues to tell their stories.  The police intervened to marshal the crowd and the main street opposite the radio station was closed to traffic.  Pickpockets and itinerant cigarette vendors circulated among them.  People were terrified a terrorist would infiltrate the crowd and turn all these stories into a pulp of flesh and fire."
p.1, 'The Song of the Goats' (2013, Comma Press)
It is a stunning start to the collection, one which sets the scene for much of what is to follow in later stories.

This start to the collection introduces two concepts which the writer will expand upon throughout the book: the importance of stories and the constant presence of death.  The first story, 'The Song of the Goats', has a radio station set up a competition to tell the best story about life in the war-torn country (hence the long queues...).  This is closely followed by 'The Fifth-Floor Window', in which a group of sick men tell stories to pass the time as they see the chaos unfolding from the window of their room.

From here, the stories increase in intensity, with the writer painting images of violence and madness, with the crudeness of the language at times matching the events depicted.  Many of the stories abound in sex, drinking and (very) black humour, whatever it takes to make the pain go away.  In 'The Killers and the Compass', a psychopath roams the suburbs of what could be described as post-apocalyptic Iraq.  There is certainly more than a hint of Mad Max here (this is a man who is definitely dangerous to know).  'The Iraqi Christ', the title story of the collection, then introduces us to an ex-soldier with a sixth sense for danger - on the very day his luck is about to run out...
There is more to The Iraqi Christ than news from Iraq though.  Blasim, who now lives in Finland, also looks at what happens to people who leave their homeland behind.  'Dear Beto' chronicles a tale of depression in Finland, narrated by an emigrant (albeit a rather unusual one...) while 'Why Don't You Write a Novel, Instead of Talking About All These Characters?' is centred on refugees in Hungary and the ordeals they face in getting to their new home.  It also features a certain writer, who appears to be travelling under a pseudonym...

...and in fact this slice of meta-fiction is just one of a series of excursions out of realism and into something more akin to Magical Realism.  Many of the stories are slightly more fantastical than you would imagine, again perhaps an attempt to escape the disappointments of everyday life.  In 'The Hole', a soldier falls down a hole and makes the acquaintance of a 'Djinni' (not something that occurs on a daily basis, even in Baghdad), and 'A Wolf' is a tall tale about cruising bars for sex, Jehovah's witnesses, mosquitoes... oh, and a wolf ;)  For fans of Kafka or Murakami (like yours truly), these stories are actually some of the most entertaining in the collection.

The Iraqi Christ then is a mix of different styles of stories, all trying to make sense of a chaotic society where the past has been thrown out of the window and where the future is uncertain, a world of madness and constant noise:
"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."
p.73, 'Dear Beto'
What can you do in the face of a reality like this except drink, sleep around, surrender to the madness - and tell stories...