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The Grotesqueries of Iraq

by CHARLES R. LARSON

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.

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

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