Tag Archives: Translated from Arabic

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.