Book Review

The horrors of Iraq are on full display in ‘The Corpse Exhibition’

Updated: 2014-02-09T04:09:33Z

By ANNE KNIGGENDORF

Special to The Star

Hassan Blasim’s short fictional piece “The Reality and the Record” sends a clear message: Trust no one.

“They are all killers and schemers — my wife, my children, my neighbors, my colleagues, God, his Prophet, the government, the newspapers. …”

What would put a man in this condition?

Well, first, Iraq.

In this story, a refugee is stating his case for asylum to a Swedish immigration officer. “Everyone staying at the refugee reception center has two stories — the real one and the one for the record. … They merge and it becomes impossible to distinguish between them.”

The man, an ambulance driver, had been kidnapped by one group, sold to another, kidnapped again, until he no longer knew or cared who had him. His captors had filmed him reading a script implicating him in crimes against humanity in the name of various organizations and countries. These films were authenticated by Al Jazeera and distributed worldwide, though there was nothing authentic about them.

The only constant in the story is the cameraman, who appeared to be the same regardless of the group producing the video, and who reminded the victim of an admired colleague. The man asks for Swedish asylum, “because of everyone.”

“The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq,” the new collection of short fiction by Blasim, rendered from two previous collections, invites us to look at — and try not to look away from — the lives of Iraqi civilians going back to the Baathist reign of Saddam Hussein and into the perils of the Green Zone.

Also a poet and filmmaker, Blasim found his own refuge in Finland after fleeing Iraq in 1998, and working under a pseudonym to protect his family in Baghdad. These stories are translated to English by Jonathan Wright.

The book’s jacket accurately bills it as “a pageant of horrors.” The book is infused with terrible, bloody scenes of violence, such as one in which a man who lost his legs fighting in Kuwait is later captured, crucified and has his arms shot off. There is death in every tale. A few stories are told by deceased narrators.

What’s relatable and humanizing in these stories is the feeling of being baffled by the violence, corruption and suspicion. “The Green Zone Rabbit”: An egg found in a rabbit’s hutch is really an explosive. “An Army Newspaper”: A dead soldier continues to submit hundreds of brilliant stories to a newspaper editor.

Blasim is straining to make sense of outlandish occurrences so that he can impart the mind-bending experiences of war and ever-present mistrust to readers outside of Iraq and the Middle East.

It can be difficult to invest in the characters themselves. Blasim gives us information about each one, but often as a litany of attributes or interests. For instance, Jaafar in “A Thousand and One Knives” is a soccer referee, “forty-five-years-old, but still young at heart,” “most famous pool player in sector 29,” an army deserter, “like a fox. …”

But somehow, even his mutilation and death is simply another bit of information in his personal profile. The characters are frequently introduced in pages-long monologues, as in the title story, “The Corpse Exhibition.” All we know of these people is what we can gather from their lengthy speeches — quite a bit, but information alone does not build readerly empathy.

In “The Corpse Exhibition,” the first-person narrator endures an eight-page speech by a supervisor in his department about how to publicly display fresh corpses. Because we know next to nothing about the narrator, the last sentence slips in like a blade with little emotional jolt:

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

Perhaps it’s not possible to really know these characters unless you are one of them. Blasim moves the Iraqi experience closer to outsiders than it has been before, but at the same time the reader isn’t allowed all the way in. “A Thousand and One Knives” seems to offer an explanation for the anonymous and distant first-person narrators:

“The wars and the violence were like a photocopier churning out copies and we all wore the same face, a face shaped by pain and torment. We fought for every morsel we ate, weighed down by the sadness and the fears generated by the unknown and the known.”

Readers can be grateful to have some distance from these characters and their lives — without that, these stories would be the stuff of nightmares.

Anne Kniggendorf is a graduate student at University of Missouri-Kansas City and an intern at The Star. She can be reached at akniggendorf@kcstar.com.

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