‘The Hole’ by Hassan Blasim

Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi writer who was forced to leave his country in 1998 and now lives in exile in Finland. Many of the stories in this book take place in the climate of baroque cruelty and violence of Saddam-era Iraq where the Ba’ath party officials string up young Kurdish rebels on the football pitch and the children use the bloodstained posts to mark their goals. ‘The Hole’ seems to be set in the period after Saddam was deposed when revolutionaries and religious extremists vie for control. The story begins abruptly. The nameless narrator is ambushed by gunmen while trying to stock up on supplies from his boarded up shop and he ends up falling into a hole at the far end of the park, “down by the side of the Natural History Museum”. In the hole he finds a decrepit old man, a djinni, and the body of a Russian soldier who died “during the winter war between the Russians and the Finns”. The hole itself is not very deep. When the shopkeeper looks up he can see the lights of the park and he remarks that if another man fell in they’d be able to get out by standing on each other’s shoulders. But it soon becomes clear that even though he can still see that old world, he has fallen right out of it and the laws of causality and logic have no purchase where he’s standing. Blasim writes with caustic humour about the powerlessness of individuals caught up in cycles of violence. What I particularly love is the he combines recognisable day-to-day details with the tone of a fable. Kafka is clearly an influence. 

First published in The Iraqi Christ, Comma Press, 2013

‘A Thousand and one Knives’, by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright

It’s a miracle that we have Blasim: an Iraqi writer who cannot get published in his native Arabic (there was an attempt in Lebanon, but the book was banned very quickly thereafter), but instead posted his stories online which we now have in excellent translations courtesy of Jonathan Wright. His stories are absurd mishmashes of Kafka, Borges and Bolaño, but incorporating both ancient Arabic culture (this story owes more than a little to the Arabian Nights, as the title makes clear) and contemporary Iraq. These are some violent, brutal short stories.

In ‘A Thousand and One Knives’ a paraplegic has the magical ability to make knives disappear. He is then captured by terrorist. It does not end happily. The bleakness of Blasim’s stories doesn’t seem nihilistic, however, as much as it demonstrates the dark realities of war, where happy endings are few and far between.

(Other stories that I read fairly recently but which may in time become as important to me as the above include: ‘Virgin’ by April Ayers Lawson, ‘Spins’ by Eley Williams, ‘Track‘ by Nicole Flattery and ‘Femme Maison’ by Joanna Walsh.)

First published in The Iraqi Christ, Comma Press, 2004

‘The Reality and the Record’ by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright

Hassan Blasim is perhaps best known for winning the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with his collection The Iraqi Christ. I still have strong memories of The Madman of Freedom Square, Blasim’s first collection to appear in English; and of ‘The Reality and the Record’, the very first story of his that I read.

An introduction sets out that refugees arriving at reception centres have one story for the record (in order to gain asylum), and another for their private reality. Then we see this in action: an Iraqi refugee describes being kidnapped from his job as an ambulance driver and sold from group to group, placed in front of a camera and made to act as an Afghan fighter, a Spanish soldier, or whatever suits his captors. Role after role, story upon story… Blasim presents war as a maze of realities in which a person can so easily become lost.

(Read and first published in the collection The Madman of Freedom Square (Comma Press, 2009). Available to read online here)