I’m a slow reader nowadays. I loved this book though; I initially thought the quote on the front cover declaring the author “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive” was a bit too ambitious, but a few stories into the book, I realized it’s not so much of an overstatement.
In this set of stories Hassan Blasim reminiscences about the US invasion of Iraq and the daily violence and carnage endured by the locals. His accounts are very powerful, yet he manages to touch you without lapsing into sentimentality. There’s no romanticism involved; he gives us these flashes of the vulgar to counteract the sense of poignancy, and he never lets you paint a mental picture of Iraqis as innocent civilians passively awaiting their fate. In “Crosswords”, for example, two teenagers regularly see a prostitute who’s their mothers’ age. And later when they grow into adults, married with children and all, they visit her at her deathbed when she needs companionship the most. She cries when she sees them. People respond to brutality in a myriad of ways, after all, and Blasim injects a refreshing dose of agency into his characters as he describes what Iraqis have made of the war. (The translator, Jonathan Wright, plays along with his liberal use of slang and the f-word.) Sarah Irving in arablit.org describes the collection as “an unsparing, an unforgiving depiction of the human condition.”
Hassan Blasim currently lives in Finland and that’s where some of his stories are set. Many others are set in Baghdad. My favourites are “The Iraqi Christ”, “The Green Zone Rabbit”, “Crosswords”, and “A Thousand and One Knives”. This last one was simply genius. I think the cover depicts “The Dung Beetle.” The one I least liked is “Dear Beto” (it does have a satisfying ending though).
Here is a passage from “The Green Zone Rabbit”:
“I developed a passion for reading when I was thirteen. In the beginning I read classical Arabic poetry and lots of stories translated from the Russian. But I soon grew bored. Our neighbour worked in the Ministry of Agriculture and one day I was playing with his son Salam on the roof of their house, when we came across a large wooden trunk up there with assorted junk piled up on top of it. Salam shared a secret with me. The trunk was crammed with books about crops and irrigation methods and countless encyclopedias about plants and insects. Under the books were lots of sex magazines with pictures of Turkish actresses. Salam gave me a magazine but I also took a book about the various types of palm tree that grow in the country. I didn’t need Salam after that. I would sneak from our house to the roof of theirs to visit the library in the trunk. I would take one book and one magazine and put back the ones I borrowed. After that I fell in love with books about animals and plants and would hunt down every new book that reached the bookshops, until I was forced to join the army” (36-37)