Tag Archives: Best of 2014

6. The Corpse Exhibition, by Hassan Blasim

7 Jan

The Corpse Exhibition, by Hassan Blasim

I recently saw an article in The New York Times celebrating all the Serious Writing by Americans coming out of Iraq, which I’m sure was valid, but had an unsettling whiff of cultural appropriation…we go in, fuck shit up, and then get works of literature out of it. Yay.

Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition is a wonderful corrective to that type of thing. It’s a book of short stories about life in contemporary Iraq, in translation from the Arabic, written by an Iraqi writer now in exile in Finland. And while the landscape is a familiar litany of bombings, kidnappings, beheadings and absurdist politics, America is mentioned only once, in passing. On page 107, in the story “A Thousand and One Knives,” a coffee shop owner mentions that “the Americans were going to search the sector that night for weapons.” A character replies

” ‘What does that bunch of cowboys want? It’s because of them that I lost my legs in the Kuwait war. What do they want next? Fuck them. One day America is going to go to shit.'” Then he, “changed the subject back to soccer.”

Okay then, fuck the Americans, a footnote in a litany of evils. What is this book about?

The Corpse Exhibition describes an Iraq where “everything is soaked and knocked out of place,” and “the wretched houses were catching their breath after receiving a whipping from the storm,” to take just two examples. The people are bored, miserable, maimed. A character early on describes his mother:

“I don’t recall ever seeing my mother as a human being. She would always be weeping and wailing in the corner of the kitchen like a dog tied up to be tormented. My father would assail her with a hail of insults, and when her endurance broke, she would whine aloud, ‘Why good Lord? Why? Take me and save me.’ Only then would my father stand up, take the cord out of his headdress, and whip her nonstop for half an hour, spitting at her throughout.”

Everything good or dear or true has been profaned, and no description will cling long to the light.

“It was a wonderful summer night. Three best friends from school reunited. I lay on the grass, looked up at the clear sky, and began to imagine God as a mass of shadows.”

The stories’ darkness and inventive structure twists and turns through realism, metaphor and narrator-voice hijinks, attempting to grapple with the meaningless violence of the surroundings. In the title story, “The Corpse Exhibition,” a man applies for a job as an assassin, speaking to an interviewer whose aims seem simultaneously demented, ecstatic and bureaucratic. On the first page of the story the interviewer is holding a knife, which he uses to kill the job-seeker at the end.

“Then he thrust the knife into my stomach and said, ‘You’re shaking.'”

In the next story,  “The Killers and the Compass,” an older brother takes a younger brother out on a mission to kill someone, which, since the primary relationship is intact, is almost sweet.

“Abu Hadid knocked back what remained of the bottle of arak. He put his face close to mine and, with the calm of someone high on hashish, gave me this advice:…”

Stories are narrated by corpses, madmen, multiple voices. The documents do not make sense. Carlos Fuentes is invoked in a story where an Iraqi emigre to Finland takes his name somewhat unwittingly, in order to shed his country of origin. The fake Carlos Fuentes tries but fails to escape the memories of his past—in Iraq, he “worked for the municipality in the cleaning department, part of a group assigned by the manager to clear up in the aftermath of explosions.”

“Bored and disgusted as on every miserable day, [he] and his colleagues were sweeping a street market after an oil tanker had exploded nearby, incinerating chickens, fruit, vegetables and some people. They were sweeping the market slowly and cautiously, for fear they might sweep up with the debris any human body parts left over. But they were always looking for an intact wallet or perhaps a gold chain….”

Part of the writing’s power is the tight segues between chickens and people, between a job, a body part and a theft. The main character of this story has had two names and two countries in two paragraphs, and has also already died. They are absolutely wonderful—if I haven’t said it earlier—spectacular, tight, formal, funny, lavish in their horror. Comparisons to Gogol are apt.

And each one is so short, a small explosion, a corpse exhibition.



4. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

4 Jan

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The main character of the brilliant and wonderful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is a blogger and Nigerian immigrant to America rocketed to Internet fame by writing, “Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black.” She had me at her first words, about “Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing” and how “she had always found it a little irresponsible, the eating of ice cream cones by grown-up American men in public.” An otherizing eye on the familiar is always delightful, and Adichie’s voice is fluid, chatty and funny. This is the second book I’ve read of hers in a couple of months.

Like her breakout success Half of A Yellow Sun, which was about the short-lived state of Biafra, a chunk of Nigeria that tried to secede in the late 1960s with devastating results, Americanah has a wide scope. The main thrust of the narrative is a love story and social comedy about Ifemelu and Obinze, high school sweethearts and children of the Nigerian middle class who are swept along in a tide of foreign-immigration. The couple is torn apart by their experiences abroad, and, at the beginning of the story (which is told mostly in flashbacks), are just about to get back in touch with each other.  One of the many neat tricks Adichie employs is the seamless swapping of locations between the U.S. and Nigeria, which make it impossible to say really which country the book is about—they are intertwined.

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It’s a love story but it’s also, mostly, a book about race, which takes place primarily in flashbacks at an African braiding salon (and talks in powerfully exhaustive detail about black hair). The premise is that, as Ifemelu explains, you aren’t “black” in Africa, because everyone is black and so race is not an issue. And then you move to America and suddenly you are black, and in a wonderful position to see clearly what it all means. Ifemelu’s fictional blog posts are excerpted throughout the text in depth, and one particularly good one is called “To My Fellow Non-American Blacks: In America, You are Black, Baby.” She dates a preppy white man, then a bourgie black man (an activist-professor in cultural studies at Yale, of course), all the while longing for Obinze and the comfort-in-your-own-skin that he represents.

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I’ve read some criticism of Adiche recently that she romanticizes the African experience, and is too UMC, and that her people are symbols rather than people, which is all somewhat true. She’s kind of like an African Tolstoy that way. And whatever else you may think about Tolstoy, he wrote excellent novels.

I can understand the criticism that she’s letting us be tourists through the lives of others, but during that tour she makes many perceptive observations about race in America, starting with the fact that Americans won’t talk about it. (Her anecdote is, If you’re in a store, and there are two clerks, and one is black and one is white, and the cashier asks ‘Who helped you?’ In America, you cannot identify the girl by race, despite that being the most obvious indicator.) She writes about how African blacks look down on American blacks, and in what specific ways. And then rejoins with the ways American blacks feel African blacks don’t get it. She says that Obama’s race speech was “morally unacceptable.” She tells us the various ways that white people look at a white man’s black girlfriend. Liberal white people come across like confused but friendly dogs who are probably going to bite you by accident. She is able to take this seriously and also laugh at it.

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And then there is American-ness, that grouping of qualities that we all wear and can’t even see unless we’ve spent substantial time abroad. I am familiar with the ways Russians find Americans perplexing—our loud voices, our positivity, our boundless childlike enthusiasm, our enormous toothy smiles—but since these ways are such an intense contrast to Russian-ness, I didn’t realize until reading this book that it was something universally perceived. I loved seeing Americans, black and white, through Adichie’s Nigerian protagonist’s eyes.

While reading I kept reading funny passages about Americans out loud to my Russian husband, and elicited the anecdote that when he tells his Russian father that “Things are great!” his father sighs and says, “Vanya, it makes me shudder to hear you say this.” (Admitting that “things are great” is something between bad luck and sheer insanity to a Russian…).

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This is an author whose books I’ll read more of.