‘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)