A collection of fourteen tales which scooped this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, this is the first book translated from Arabic to win the coveted award since its inception in 1990. Yet in the Arabic world Blasim’s collection has been criticized for a lack of aesthetic style and exoticizing violence, persecution and murder. Such polarisation seems inevitable for a startlingly vivid book offering a forthright depiction of post-invasion Iraq while simultaneously containing an absorbing, “surrealist inferno”, as IFFP judge Boyd Tonkin of The Independent puts it, representative of the complexity of modern Iraq.
“The Song of the Goats” strikes the opening chord to Blasim’s discomforting tune in this collection, describing a gathering of Iraqis awaiting their turn to tell their stories as part of a competition hosted by a local radio station. The stark violence and omnipresence of death that haunts their (and Blasim’s) stories jolts the reader, but you quickly find this to be the bread and butter of Blasim’s work. This is an Iraq of bombs, decapitation, murder, captivity, dark holes, treacherous gangs and death, death, death. The narrator’s, and frankly every other characters’, stolid reactions to what are abhorrent, terrifying narratives reveals how such stories have simply become commonplace in this society, and like anything that is repeated continuously, whether that be a word, a phrase, eating a nice warm meal for dinner every evening, or the presence of clean water, the ghastly contents of these stories have lost all significance in Iraq. Thus one tale which concludes ‘the teacher escaped with his life but he suffered brain damage and lost his arms’ seems to merit no reflection from our nonchalant narrator who is more concerned about the ‘twenty stories teeming in my memory’. This is typical of Blasim’s characters, and demonstrates the fatal but helpless acceptance of death and violence in modern Iraq.
Hassan Blasim: A Bookish Writer Indeed
Once thing that is not taken for granted is the sharing and dissemination of stories, which is at the heart of “The Song of the Goats”, and many of Blasim’s protagonists are obsessive readers resolute in their belief in the power and importance of storytelling. When one story is concluded,
‘chaos broke out. Everyone was talking at the same time, like a swarm of wasps… “That’s a story!? If I told my story to a rock, it would break its heart”’.
Every man, woman and child yearns to tell his or her story, and in a society where death is ubiquitous, stories seem to be valued as a means to a lifetime unavailable to the modern Iraqi. A poignant message, especially when living in a society where the ubiquity of books has led to a devaluation of literature and the sad closure of too many independent bookshops in British high-streets.
Elsewhere are tales of war, migration, family, religion, but sewn through all of these stories is an inherent discomforting quality which never allows the reader to relax. If it is not the violence, or the ominous characters (such as the djinni in “The Hole”), it is through Blasim’s use of surrealism, metaphor and symbolism which often places a beguiling question mark lingering over his stories and layering his stories with a mesh of meaning. One intriguing example is the sporadic appearance of the author himself who crops up at will in these stories, from where arises questions of the author’s relationship to his creation. These are complex tales which require re-reading, reflection and much respect.
Any sense of familiarity with the Iraq depicted in the media is severed here, and Blasim instead offers you a more valuable, personal relationship to his country, its people, their culture, their lifestyle and the effects that war have incurred. Our formerly bird’s eye view is dismantled and the street view provided by Blasim gives us an intimate, personal and brutally honest depiction of a fragmented country ravaged by war. Credit must be paid to Jonathon Wright for the quality of the translation, to Comma Press for giving the author a platform from which to tell his stories in English, but Blasim, as far as I can tell, deserves the title bequeathed him by The Guardian as ‘perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive’.