FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Grotesqueries of Iraq

Of the fourteen violent, brutal, and bloody short stories in Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, only one (the last one in the collection) has a bit of levity, and even it ends consistently with the events and the tone of the other thirteen.  The description of the book on the jacket refers to the horrors of Abu Ghraib, which—if you recall—was an emblematic moment, revealing the true attitudes of American soldiers about Iraqis. By contrast, Blasim’s stories illustrate the other side—not how Iraqis regarded Americans but the relentless violence born of the American invasion of the country.  But just as those disgusting photos taken at Abu Ghraib are difficult to look at, reading Blasim’s stories is a relentless assault on the American reader.  Certainly, they must have been a challenge for Jonathan Wright to translate but the result is nothing less than impressive.

That final story (“The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes”) provides a few minutes of relief, just before the coup de grace.  It’s one of only two that I could say I truly enjoyed reading simply because of the bleakness of all the others.  This one begins with a paragraph the states that “In Iraq his name was Salim Abdul Husain, [but] he died in Holland in 2009 under another name: Carlos Fuentes.”  That ought to grab any informed reader. In Iraq, during the war, Salim was a sweeper, charged with cleaning up the body parts after explosions on the streets.  He and the others he worked with always hoped they would discover an “intact wallet” and get rich.  “He needed money to buy a visa to go to Holland and escape this hell of fire and death.”

One day, Salim discovers a severed finger with an expensive ring still attached to it.  Obviously, he keeps the ring which he then sells, and he acquires the visa after explaining to “the official in the immigration department…that he was frightened of the fanatical Islamist groups, because his request for asylum was based on his [earlier] work as a translator for the U.S. forces, and his fear that someone might assassinate him as a traitor to his country.”   Sound familiar?  Last thing I read there are hundreds of such translators in both Iraq and Afghanistan who have been denied visas to escape to the West.  They are frightened to death.

The inspired part of the story is revealed when Salim talks to his cousin in France who advises him that when he gets his visa he needs to change his name so that he will no longer be recognizable as an Iraqi.  “It’s a hundred times better to be from Senegal or China than it is to have an Arab name in Europe.”  His cousin tells Salim to “choose a brown name—a Cuban or Argentine name” that will suit his complexion, and since the cousin is reading a literary article that he doesn’t understand he proposes “Carlos Fuentes.”  Done.  Mission accomplished.

Carlos Fuentes becomes very happy living in Amsterdam.  He takes classes to learn Dutch.  He won’t mix with Arabs.  Soon, he’s totally transformed, denigrating his own past. “Look how clean the streets are!  Look at the toilet seat; it’s sparkling clean.  Why can’t we eat like them?  We gobble down our food as though it’s about to disappear.”  And he adds, “Why can’t we be peaceful like them?  We live in houses like pigsties while their homes are warm, safe, and colorful.  Why do they respect dogs as much as humans?  Why do we masturbate twenty-four hours a day?”  No more masturbation for Carlos Fuentes; he marries his Dutch girlfriend, a rather hefty young woman who loves him.  And, soon, he tells people that he’s a Mexican.

Finally, he becomes “a Dutch national,” erasing his Arab origins totally—or so he believes.  But the story concludes with a rather imaginative psychological twist, beginning with Carlos Fuentes’ dreams of the past, dreams he cannot suppress.  Pretty soon it’s a matter of PTS caused by the war, with scenes he cannot escape and the earlier humor is drained from the story—intentionally, of course.

The other story that I enjoyed, even found fascinating, is called “An Army Newspaper.”  The unnamed narrator, who is one of the editors, receives a number of short stories based on the war, written by a soldier who is still fighting.  He believes they are so impressive that he should publish them, but under his own name.  Who’s going to find out—perhaps the soldier who wrote them will be killed in the war.  Thus, one story is published to great acclaim.  Then he learns that the soldier has been killed so it’s obvious that he should publish the others, also under his own name.  But the short stories keep arriving—every day, so the editor checks.  Perhaps it was an error.  The soldier must not have been killed.  But there’s a grave and a body.  Yet the stories keep arriving, even though he starts burning them.  Dozens of them, and soon the stories become a metaphor for unending war.  Even guilt.  Did the editor extend the war by publishing the stories?  Is there no way for this situation ever to end?

The other stories are filled with strange juxtapositions of life in Iraq ever since the American invasion: car bomb explosions, Facebook, weapons everywhere, a collapsed economy, booze, hashish, corpses and headless bodies.  Hard to take in one sitting but probably just the medicine that we need.

Hassan Blasim: The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq

Trans. by Jonathan Wright

Penguin, 196 pp., $15

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
ANIS SHIVANI
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Vacy Vlanza
The Australian Prime Minister’s Rapture for Jerusalem
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail