There is much about Hassan Blasim that demands attention. He is an Iraqi. He escaped from Saddam’s dictatorship in 2000 by walking to Iran and smuggling himself into Europe. He has a confident, almost intimidating demeanour. And with the growing stack of literature about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all penned by westerners, there is an important space for Blasim to fill.
The Iraqi Christ is his second collection of short fiction, the first being The Madman of Freedom Square, both translated into English by Jonathan Wright. Blasim has been called, ‘the best writer of Arabic fiction alive’. It is is not his identity, how-ever, but the quality of his writing that makes his voice striking. It is deeply troubling and complex, the metaphors arresting and violent.
Blasim’s stories are nightmares. Early in ‘The Fifth Floor Window,’ the narrator describes his surroundings:
Sometimes carts would come, drawn by donkeys or horses, loaded with mangled bodies. It was hard to tell the dead from the living. It was a bleak year. Civil war. Infiltrators from abroad. Secret agents from all over the world. Adventurers. They were making their way together down the river of hell that was Baghdad.
Or in the ‘Green Zone Rabbit’, the narrator recounts the murder of his two brothers. Militia fighters ‘drilled lots of holes into their bodies with an electric drill and then cut off their heads. We found their bodies in a rubbish dump at the edge of the city.’ In both instances, the narrators speak with a detached calm, an almost playful tone, as if this has become expected behaviour. As one observes, ‘for me the world became like an incomprehensible mythical animal’.
The nightmare distends with Blasim’s figurative language. Here is a section from ‘The Song of the Goats’:
My father sent me to live with my uncle and I became a refugee of sorts… I felt like a ball that people kicked around. That’s how I spent six years, trying to understand what was happening around me. I had to learn what their feelings and their words meant, all the while wearing a chain of thorns around my neck. It was like crawling across a bed of nails… My life… exploded like a firecracker in the sky of God, a small flare in His mighty firmament of bombardment. I spent the remaining years of my childhood and adolescence watching everyone carefully, like a sniper hidden in the darkness.
At times, the imagery is so powerful it overwhelms the text. There is a constant use of metaphor to define immense concepts. The lurid dream is almost beyond verbal comprehension.
The stories in The Iraqi Christ twist and turn with daring implausibility. ‘The Wolf’, for instance, is about a man who returns home from the pub to find a wolf inside his flat. To protect himself, he hides in the bathroom for days on end. Peering through the keyhole at this wild animal, he then considers his life. The situation is so bizarre that it demands consideration. How would you behave? And which is worse — to be trapped by a real wolf or to be so insane as to imagine one? Blasim’s characters are often paralysed, caught between fear and paranoia. A hint of the same paralysis is contained in the chilling question asked when one awakes from a nightmare: was it real?
Blasim catches our attention easily but seems uncertain what to do with us. There is no clearly stated message contained in The Iraqi Christ, a welcome reprieve compared to most contemporary writing about Iraq which is often designed for consumption by a specific, ideologically targeted audience. My own decoding of the collection is that our desperation to find meaning in life can reveal a world more violent than we ever imagined, a world of terror instead of comfort.
One recurring character, often named Hassan Blasim, seems to reprise this role: an introspective youth who plies people or books for answers. He usually discovers yet more violence or useless truths. Blasim remarked during a recent visit to London that as a child, ‘All the time I wanted to disappear… my family was poor and in the summer I would read and my family would say what are you doing?’ With a good book in hand isolation is created. There is a private dream. It is for the reader then to supply the meaning for the stories in The Iraqi Christ. You race to the end, caught in the suspense, but once finished, when the nightmare is over, you are fully awake, alone and fearfully asking, like Nebuchadnezzar, ‘what could it mean?’ and ‘was it real?’
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.