I read books, I write about books, I would probably marry a book if I could find one who liked me enough. Three words to describe me mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four...
The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq
Hassan Blasim, author of The Madman of Freedom Square (longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 2010) among other titles.
The Corpse Exhibition is a collection of dark, fablelike stories from some of Iraq's blackest days.
The Art of Killing Softly
The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer or Cairo by Willow Wilson.
The protagonists of The Corpse Exhibition are an eclectic lot, from book-loving assassins to a fake Mexican going by the conspicuous pseudonym of 'Carlos Fuentes.'
Despite being written by a film director, I have a difficult time envisioning The Corpse Exhibition as a movie.
Not if you paid me.
For God's sake, what's the point, as we are about to embark on war in poetry, of someone saying, "I felt that the artillery bombardment was as hard as rain, but we were not afraid"? I would cross that out and rewrite it: "I felt that the artillery fire was like a carnival of stars, as we staggered like lovers across the soil of the homeland."
The Corpse Exhibition is not an easy book to categorize or review. Where to even begin? Blasim presents a brutal side of humanity. Book shot is appropriate here; these short stories are like swigs of whiskey to be downed in quick succession. Men have their skin sliced off, women are whipped and forced into prostitution. Much of the pain is senseless, such as the occasion when one character mutilates a vegetable seller’s face because he was “drunk and felt like it.” Through this prism, the reader gets a rare glimpse of a broken, lawless land.
The author writes primarily in Arabic, so the February debut is actually a translation, with many of the stories having already been banned across the Middle East. Blasim’s language is visceral, gritty, and completely unflinching on even the most graphic of topics. There are traces of magical elements woven in, including a precognitive compass, a dead man who speaks to the audience in monologue, and a society of highly sadistic assassins. Some of the stories read like Gothic fables, reminiscent of the violent and confounding original tales of the Brothers Grimm or Arabian Nights. It bears mentioning that in this book, dull conclusions are anathema. Every story ends with a bang (sometimes in the form of a literal explosion).
The author’s own background is as worthy of note as many of the tales in The Corpse Exhibition. Blasim was forced to flee Iraq for Finland to avoid persecution by the Hussein dictatorship after making a controversial documentary. One can’t help but wonder whether some of the themes in the book might be slightly self-referential. In a story called ‘An Army Newspaper,’ Blasim analyzes even those who write about war instead of waging it, sarcastically calling slaughter the inspiration of “such artistic largesse, such love, such poetry.”
The Corpse Exhibition is a truly unique collection of work, guaranteed to satiate anyone with a thirst for the surreal, macabre, or even those interested in seeing the conflict in Iraq from a new perspective. It's not a pleasant read, but the value of the stories is undeniable, and there isn't a single bit of fluff in the entire collection. Skip the bedtime tea and cocoa when reading this book and break out something harder—you’re going to need it.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Leah Dearborn