REFUGEE: A man leaves, embarks on a journey, endures inhumane difficulties in search of a humane haven. There is a war going on where he comes from; it’s not safe even to walk to the vegetable souk. Abducted by one armed group, an ambulance driver he knows is forced to make a fake confession on video for the benefit of satellite news channels, then sold to another armed group—and so o n. The wit prevents surrealism from devolving into the absurd. The narrative intensity recalls Albert Camus’s L’Etranger, the humour Dario Fo. For months or years the ambulance driver makes conflicting statements, impersonating every kind of fighter, serving opposite sides of the conflict—until he is released with a sac of severed heads like the one he had in the ambulance when they first stopped him. Meanwhile cars are exploding, gunmen terrorise whole neighbourhoods, houses are shelled without warning. But the man who leaves is driven by something deeper than the criteria listed on refugee-status application forms in Scandinavia. He senses that, where he lives—and not because of suicide bombers or torture—he has been robbed of something key, deprived of a self he might have had, his life denied meaning. It may be that this man is a sincere intellectual critical of his country’s backwardness. Having survived the brainwash, the Cause no longer convinces him. Nor does Identity, Imperialism, Orientalism and other defecations of history’s Arab-Muslim posterior. He feels the weight of his own absurdity. But it equally may be that this is a man of Religion or of the Regime, a dork or a douche bag that thrives on duress, seeing trouble only when his material life cracks under absurdities he has never acknowledged. He too wants out now. He wants to go places or, having been places, to go somewhere. As the ambulance driver tells the psychiatrist at the asylum to which immigration has sent him, pleadingly: he wants to sleep. And so, a refugee in Hassan Blasim’s short stories might be one of 35 illegal immigrants abandoned to the pitch-black interior of their Berlin-bound truck after the driver flees without bothering to unbar the door, only to be ravaged by a werewolf from among them. Yet he might also be a soldier who has never left Iraq: someone who is a refugee neither subjectively nor objectively but by virtue of being in the army under Saddam. It doesn’t even matter whether he knows he is a refugee. In “The Virgin and the Soldier”, the hero survives by cutting three fingers off the hand of the seamstress with whom he is trapped in a storage room—with tailor shears. They both work in a military clothing factory, and they go to that room because it is their only possible meeting place. They are deep in their illicit embrace when they realise they’ve been locked in, with a pile of uniform rejects for a mattress. Now it’s been three days without food or water and the soldier must have something to eat. In the end he never deflowers his seamstress.
WRITER: So refugees are people who, confined and deprived, end up devouring each other; they may even turn into wolves for the purpose. This is how Blasim redefines the word. Like every seriously strong metaphor, cannibalism is classic stuff, as profound as it is unoriginal. Only a true writer can get away with using it so effortlessly. A writer: someone who in another context is himself a refugee, but whose role just now is to tell a refugee’s tale, or a soldier’s. Or a werewolf’s. Blasim contains everything from Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” to Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. A writer is so called not because he has a contribution to make to national consciousness, a presence in the media or a role to play in society—most of the time there is in fact no society—but because he remoulds reality into something enjoyable. He redefines words. He also comments on what History he experiences, of course, but only obliquely, without emotion and to inconclusive ends. So a true writer is automatically overshadowed by a fake brand of eponymous creature: “They claim they are builders who will rebuild what the war lay waste to, cultured politicians and economists, doctors, surgeons and interpreters of catastrophes, destroyers of the idols of religion and superstitions.” Not so Khaled Al Hamrani, 57, author of three collections of short stories published at his expense, tenacious bard of his neighbourhood’s totally insignificant souk, and hero of “The Story Souk”. “You can make the woman fishmonger at the market a spaceship lost in the cosmos, or turn aubergines into a lesson in philosophy; the important thing is to observe for a long time, like someone contemplating suicide from a balcony,” Hamrani tells the local newspaper in an interview. “It’s also important to own an unpretentious imagination that is nonetheless sly and dead serious, and to have the soul of a dying ascetic. This souk that I write about is to me a wide ocean, in which I am only a bubble that is undoubtedly there but not clearly visible.” Hamrani dreams of a mysterious set of numbers, he remembers particular horrors of the war. Eventually he tricks the reader into believing that he has died in a bombing at the souk while buying his son new shoes, one of which he holds onto as he breathes his last, when in fact he was making it up. It is Hamrani who has been writing “The Story Souk”, not Blasim. But, to see the world in a blood-washed shoe? A man who has never travelled, who has no interest in leaving his hometown or writing about anything other than its souk, no literary ambition beyond getting his stories down on paper: in his sheer ordinariness Hamrani ironically comes across as History’s witness, someone who realises that it wouldn’t matter if he died. “They mourn the nonexistent readers,” the narrator says of those builders and surgeons, those bastards. “They’ve also found that writers of previous times are the ones who let the readers go, whereas for hundreds of years there’ve been in the country no readers in the broad sense of the word. There’ve been only hungry people, murderers, illiterates, soldiers, villagers, people who pray, people who get lost and wronged people.”
SOLDIER: A stretch of wall splattered with the brains of a girl. The girl’s head was hit by the wing of a plane that was shot down in Kirkuk. Her body flew up into the sky and reportedly never came down. The kind of ancient image a true writer will bring to his ultra-realistic setting: he parades it like an animated rune. Writers dream and play tricks, bear testimony. But essentially they are persons who contemplate their deaths with equanimity. It’s what soldiers too must do if they are to live out their time before they become refugees or die. Contrary to the wishes of their superiors—Saddams, Qaeda commanders, Guardians of Iran’s Islamic Revolution—soldiers do not want to be in battle. And by the random rules of this book, everyone is a soldier of some kind: an instrument of power, an employee of reality. Everyone is here against their will. That is why, having lived his story, a soldier will apply for refugee status at the immigration offices of literature. In the title story, a madman imagines an alternative history of his town, in which the townspeople engage in full-blown war with the government to prevent the dismantling of a statue of two blond young men who brought the town good fortune long ago. Elsewhere people compete to tell their tales of atrocity through a dedicated radio channel: the more atrocious, the better. An Iraqi in the Netherlands is so determined to shed his past he calls himself Carlos Fuentes and stops speaking Arabic. Despite his astonishing success at becoming a Dutchman in waking life, Fuentes is tormented by nightmares in which he is Iraqi again. A military correspondent receives a series of ingenious novel manuscripts by post. Their writer is a young soldier who, as it turns out, has died in battle. The correspondent publishes the novels in his name, he is rich and famous. Yet the dead man just won’t stop sending him manuscripts, each as brilliant as the next—and he ends up burning himself in the furnace he sets up to get rid of the excess poetry. Still, there are subtler ways to die. “The Corpse Exhibition” is a pep talk to a novice artist of murder. The older agent of the Organisation explains how much he hates the horror-movie sensationalism of traditional methods. In contrast, he gives the example of an agent who turned the flesh and bone of the target into a concrete-like flagpole on a mound, with the fluttering flag made of the target’s skin. The agent completed his art work while the target—himself a failed agent—was conscious. It also transpires that agents are practically unable to ever leave the Organisation once they join, that the work of killing and publicly displaying the corpse is systematically funded and administered, that the Organisation moves from one part of the world to another, staying only for as long as conditions are unstable. Thus the fascist philosophy of lightening the world’s human burden combined with G J Ballard: art is art is macabre, apparently. At the start of the pep talk the agent unsheathes a knife that he keeps holding; by the end he will thrust it in the novice’s gut, saying, “You are trembling.”
SHAPESHIFTER: A soldier, then, is someone who trembles, especially someone who trembles when he’s not supposed to; a soldier is a human being after all. But so, all things considered, is the alien Hassan Blasim (b. 1973), the Iraqi who lives in Finland, an Arab writer first published in translation—logically, when you think about it. Addressing his dead psychiatrist in Helsinki, one character says, “I am unable to write a story, but I am ready to be involved in the issue of literature to one end only: for the dignity of those on the brink of madness.” Quotable lines bob on the dense surf of the story: the psychiatrist’s fatal car accident; plans to include a live camel in the decor of an Iraqi restaurant; the rudimentary sci-fi saga unfolding in the mind of the hero. In “The Bad Habit of Undressing”, a chance conversation with a jobless drunk raises the question of sanity again. “Better to say ‘authentic’ than ‘mad’, for authenticity is talking to others in spite of the nightmare terror and pain.” And the tone of the drunk describing his habit of never wearing clothes in the house turns out to be as authentically desultory as it should be. Miraculously, a wolf appears in the hall of the drunk’s apartment; the man locks himself in the bathroom, but after 48 hours hiding, he decides to open the door and confront the wolf, naked or not. Pouncing on the beast as the beast pounces on him, the man enters an otherworldly darkness. The suggestion is never spelled out that, instead of the wolf being a projection of his, for the duration of that semi-conscious state, the drunk is or becomes the wolf a la Zhuangzi. Shapeshifting, blessing or curse, is the prerogative of both the soldier who becomes a refugee and the writer who recounts the becoming. Is it what happens to Jaafar Al Mtalbi when he turns from the composer of regime’s official songs to a professional blasphemer who is eventually killed in the most gruesome way. Is it what happens to the narrator of “That Ill-Fated Smile” when he is beaten up by Nazis, having been unable to suppress his meaningless smile all day? Is it what happens to Blasim himself when he writes? “Doctor,” says the Helsinki-based hero of “The Dung Beetle”, “we have observed the planet Duouis Tumla… and are now certain that no one lives on it except the six recorded by the space observation cameras. What is surprising is that they have not crossed the borders of their village on the banks of the Red River. That is a frozen river, but we are still ignorant of the nature of its substance. It looks to us like a river of frozen blood…”
Reviewed by Youssef Rakha