Monday, December 10, 2012

Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim tours UK & publicises new story collection The Iraqi Christ

The Iraqi short story writer, poet and filmmaker Hassan Blasim begins a three-day UK tour tonight with an appearance at the Lit and Phil Library in Newcastle Upon Tyne at 7pm. Blasim's tour marks the imminent publication by Manchester-based Comma Press of The Iraqi Christ, his second short story collection in English, translated by Jonathan Wright. The tour, on which Blasim is accompanied by Wright, is supported by English PEN which earlier this year awarded The Iraqi Christ a 2012 English PEN Writers in Translation Award to help with the book's marketing and promotion. (The book is officially published in the New Year, but can be ordered in advance online.)

On Tuesday 11th December Blasim will be in Manchester, at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation  at 7pm. On Wednesday 12th he appears with both Wright and English PEN Jo Glanville at 7pm at the Mosaic Rooms of the A M Qattan Foundation in central London. All three events in Newcastle, Manchester and London are free.

Hassan Blasim (©Tomas Whitehouse, who writes about his photo session with Blasim here)

The fortchcoming publication of The Iraqi Christ will be highly timely, with the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq just three months away. Blasim's short stories take as their subject matter the repercussions on individuals of the decades of violence and suffering to which Iraqis have been subjected in recent decades, in which the 2003 invasion and its aftermath is the latest chapter.

Blasim was born in Baghdad in 1973 and studied at the city's  Academy of Cinematic Arts where two of his films - Gardenia (screenplay) and White Clay (screenplay and director) - won the Academy's Festival Award for Best Work. In 1998 he left Baghdad for Sulaymaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he continued to make films, including Wounded Camera. He worked using the pseudonym 'Ouazad Osman', as he feared for this family's safety in Baghdad under Saddam's dictatorship.
In 2004 Blasim moved to Finland as a refugee. His stories have been published on the website, of which he is a co-editor, and his essays on cinema have been published in the UAE. He has made numerous short films and documentaries for Finnish television.

Blasim has developed a fruitful relationship with Comma Press, a not-for-profit publisher promoting new fiction and poetry, with an emphasis on the short story. His short story The Reality and the Record was published in Comma's 2008 anthology Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East edited by Lebanese poet, translator and journalist Joumana Haddad.

Comma published Blasim's first collection of stories in English translation The Madman of Freedom Square , translated by Jonathan Wright, in 2009. The collection attracted considerable critical attention and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010. It has been translated into Finnish, Spanish, Polish and Italian. A heavily-edited version was finally published in Arabic in 2012, only to be immediately banned in Jordan.

The 14 stories in The Iraqi Christ are written with Blasim's characteristic blend of reality, satire, fantasy and surrealism . Blasim brings home the barbarity of a society in which suicide bombings, massacres and assassinations are part of the fabric of life. His characters struggle to survive in the face of violence and sectarianism. The barbarity at the state and political level is mirrored by cruelties and aggression at the domestic level.

The unflinching stories are original, inventive and savagely funny, though at times gruelling, and have an urgency about them. Jonathan Wright has produced a fine translation, skilfully handling the changes in register from the lyrical to the slangy and obscene.

The stories are full of incident and characters, often ranging widely over geography and time yet they are also remarkably compact, almost mini-novels. The author's talents in filmmaking seem to be reflected in his writing skills. In the story Why Don't You Write a Novel, Instead of Talking About All These Characters? the narrator is asked: "Why do you cram all these names into one short story?" He answers by quoting Rumi: "The truth was once a mirror in the hands of God. Then it fell and broke into a thousand pieces. Everybody has a very small piece of it, but each one believes he has the whole truth".

This story opens with a group of refugees of various nationalities with a people trafficker in the last forest before the Romanian-Hungarian border. The narrator and his long-time Iraqi friend carry the body of a dead Afghan with them for three nights: the friend is later imprisoned in Hungary, for having strangled the Afghan. The narrator works as a translator in a refugee camp under the name Salem Hussein. His  imprisoned friend tells him "You're an arsehole and a fraud. Your name's Hassan Blasim and you claim to be Salem Hussein."

The titular story features Daniel, a Christian soldier nicknamed by his comrades the Chewgum Christ. He has an astonishing ability to predict events, a gift that often saves fellow Iraqi soldiers under attack during the war in Kuwait. But back in civilian life he is forced into becoming a suicide bomber so as to save his elderly mother's life. The narrator of this story encounters Daniel "in the next world";  with    death a constant presence, several stories drift between this world and the next. A crucifixion does occur in the collection - not in the story The Iraqi Christ but in A Thousand and One Knives, in a scene the gruesomeness of which makes reading hard to bear. 

The stories are told in the first person: in some cases, the story is in quotes as it is being told to someone else in the story. Blasim plays with ideas of storytelling and identity. At the end of  A Wolf,  in which an immigrant to Finland tells of what happened when he found a wolf in his city flat, the person to whom the story has been told introduces himself as "Hassan Blasim, pleased to meet you." 

Another story with a Finnish setting is Dear Beto, which takes place in a forest. Blasim seems to have found an affinity with the forests of Finland in the eight years he has lived in that country, and the story has some soulful, meditative writing, in which creativity and violence combine.

There are frequent references in the stories to the pleasures of reading. In A Thousand and One Knives four friends find they can make knives disappear: the wife of the narrator is the only person who can make them reappear. Through reading, the narrator concludes that the knives are "just a metaphor for all the terror, the killing and the brutality in the country."  He moves into the world of Mutanabbi Street, famed for its bookshops, and  in order to try and understand the mystery of the knives the group of friends buys more and more books. "The magic of words was like rain that quenched the thirst in my soul, and for me life became an idea and a dream: the idea was a ball and the dream was two tennis racquets." 

A ward in the Baghdad Medical City hospital is the location of The Fifth Floor Window, a darkly comic story told by a narrator who has lung cancer and is sharing a ward with two men suffering from colon cancer. Unfortunately for the cancer sufferers, the doctors are constantly diverted to the stream of casualties in the emergency department caused by suicide bombings and massacres.

One of the cancer patients, Salwan, has two wives who "would sit on the end of the bed like squabbling crows. Salwan shared his insults between them, all without understanding a word of what they said." He persecutes the other colon cancer sufferer, a pilot, for his groans of pain. The narrator longs to be back on the university campus where he is preparing a master's on fantasy literature. "I was interested in why the country's literature did not include this distinctive genre".

In The Hole a shopkeeper revisiting the shop that he had to abandon because of the violence flees runs from armed robbers and  finds himself falling into a hole. His companion in the hole is a crazy old man claiming to be a djinni who had been a scholar in Baghdad in the Abbasid era. The other occupant of the hole is a dead Russian soldier from the "winter war between Russian and Finland."

There is a hallucinatory quality to many of scenes in Blasim's stories. In Crosswords  a prize-winning compiler of crossword puzzles is injured in an explosion of vehicles and when he is recovering in hospital he finds a policeman who was burnt to death in the attack has taken over his mind.

The situation in Iraq is in danger of being sidelined, a forgotten conflict pushed to the margins of the international news agenda by the uprisings and revolutions in other Arab states. Almost every day brings news of car bombings and other violence, but such news is so commonplace is barely makes an impact outside Iraq. The Iraqi Christ is a potent reminder of the legacy and ongoing impact of war and civil strife in Iraq, and it deserves a wide readership. Following the publication of Blasim's two collections by Comma Press in the UK, Comma has sold Blasim's short story collection The Corpse Exhibition to Penguin USA.  The Corpse Exhibition, due to be published in autumn 2013,  will comprise both Madman of Freedom Square, and The Iraqi Christ  
Susannah Tarbush

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