‘The Iraqi Christ’ by Hassan Blasim is one of the six short listed books for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, to be awarded very shortly on May 22nd . It is a collection of short stories translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright, set mostly in Iraq. My favourite is the last story ‘A Thousand and One Knives’ which I think echoes many of the themes in the previous stories: individuals physically and mentally scarred by war, random violence, the sustaining nature of friendship, the consolation of words and ideas and the surreal. The story centres on a disparate group of people who share the same magical power: they can make knives disappear. Apart from Souad, who can make them re-appear. They become friends, united by their powers, which are shown to have ambiguous and symbolic meaning through the story and in the ending. Many characters in the stories, both central and minor, have suffered loss, of limb and of loved ones at the front, but also in suicide attacks, car bombs and individual acts of revenge. The penetration of conflict into the heart of civilian life, and its banality, is depicted in short, spare sentences and a matter of fact tone which shocks as much as any lingering description of gruesome detail. Sometimes it is the juxtaposition of conflict and the everyday which is at the heart of the story: ‘The Fifth Floor Window’ is an account of three middle aged cancer sufferers in a fifth floor ward looking down at the courtyard below, filled with cars and ambulances rushing in with mutilated bodies from the front. Some of the stories are surreal and consist of two voices or narrators; we read on, keen to find out who they are and their relation to one another. Sometimes the surreal elements invade the real as in ‘Sarsara’s tree’, when Sarsara steps out of the story told to the narrator and becomes a character in the frame narrative. At times, the surreal seems simply bizarre and absurd and one or two stories are less comprehensible to me for this reason.
I chose to read this collection because I heard it discussed by the panel of judges at the London Book Fair and realised I had never read anything by an Iraqi writer. I love short stories but usually read more mainstream collections heavily pushed by publishers such as by Alice Munro. These are overwhelmingly collections by women: on my ‘to read’ pile my next author is Mavis Gallant. Here, the narrative voice is male; experiences are recounted through the eyes of a male narrator and women are often mothers powerless and grieving, or prostitutes, though occasionally a young woman such as Souad is struggling like the young men to make sense of her life through study. I found myself wondering sometimes how a female writer would convey Iraq in conflict and whether she would use different narrative techniques. This awareness of narrative gender did not however detract for me from the power of the stories to convey the experience of human beings suffering conflict and trying to make sense of their lives. And the skill of Jonathan Wright’s muscular and flexible translation, able to both render events in a spare, taut prose and to vividly convey inner reflections and sensory perceptions, must also be noted.
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