The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim (trans. Jonathan Davies). Comma Press. 93 pp.., $13.95.
Hassan Blasim’s debut short story collection, The Madman of Freedom Square, directs the reader’s gaze toward the violence of recent Iraqi experience: neighbors turning in neighbors, street cleaners collecting body parts, refugees in flight. But it also points toward itself, and the more violent and troubling aspects of its storytelling.
The book, which made The Independent’s longlist for best foreign fiction, has yet to appear in Arabic. The stories were solicited by Comma Press, written in Arabic, and translated straightaway by Jonathan Wright. It is thus perhaps not surprising that Blasim’s characters have fraught relationships with the stories they’re telling—and the audience for whom they’re telling them.
Many of the stories in The Madman of Freedom Square focus on refugees who must tell and retell their narratives for an official record. Here, reality and fiction blur: The (Western) reader listens to stories about refugees—told by an author who fled to Finland in 2004—and thus becomes a judge of their veracity. And the stories are never 100 percent reliable, veering between meta-narration, black comedy, surrealism, and painful realism.
From the moving “Ali’s Bag”:
Once I was talking to a young German novelist about my personal experiences in the world of migrants and my ideas about turning what I had lived through into material for literary fiction. When it was the young German’s turn to speak he told me that he had never written anything of merit and that his youth and lack of experiences in life were the reason for this failure. I felt he wanted to tell me that he envied me the strange and painful life experiences I had had. But what he said, instead of making me feel privileged, severely embarrassed me.
This narrator—who one might conflate with the author—goes on to relate a migrant’s story that is both painfully comic and deeply touching. In the heat of it, it’s easy to forget that the narrator has also told us:
I was always tempted to write the story of Ali al-Basrawi, even if it is loaded with grief and gloom, along with a few Third World clichés which try to appeal to the sentiments of Western audiences.
Stories in Blasim’s collection often have this double edge: They cut you with the painful lives of their characters, and they cut you by acknowledging your (easily purchased) sympathy. This is not a book about which Richard Wright could complain: “even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about [it].”
If you weep—as you might, over Ali’s relationship with his mother, or over the fate of refugees in “The Truck to Berlin”—you probably will not feel good about it. There are no heroes in this collection. The defiant artist in “The Composer” is also crazy: He can no longer compose patriotic songs, only silly ones that poke fun at religion. This may sound brave, but the composer is also a member of the Baath party and reports on his neighbors.
“Reality and the Record” also evokes a tangled relationship between art and oppression. It begins with a kidnapping, after which the protagonist is forced to videotape a staged confession. The tape is broadcast, and the man is such an effective actor that he’s sold to another group, who records him making another false confession. He’s sold again, and again.
The oppressor-artist in “An Army Newspaper” is the editor of an army journal’s cultural pages. He thinks little of the soldiers, and frequently adds “lyrical” touches to their work. But one soldier mails in an incredible hand-written novel. The editor learns that the soldier has died and so publishes the book as his own. Accolades are numerous, but the editor is later overwhelmed with thousands upon thousands of impossibly beautiful stories, mailed in from this soldier he’d presumed dead.
The protagonist of “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes,” at first appears to have nothing to do with art. He is a former Iraqi street cleaner who flees to the Netherlands. “Carlos” acclimates so thoroughly to life there that he wants nothing more than to scrub away his history. The transformation seems complete—until his brain begins to manufacture stories at night. Carlos’s nightmares continue despite his wild attempts to stop this production of art and memory. And, in the end, he must kill himself to be free.
Throughout The Madman of Freedom Square, art and memory are neither sought after nor carefully crafted. Rather, they are forces that assault the characters, hounding them, often into madness or death.
The collection itself feels hastily crafted. The ending of “An Army Newspaper” is too aggressive, telling its reader precisely how to interpret its narrative. Other story endings seem to float away. These varied stylistic choices lend an uneven quality to the collection, as though the author had hurriedly gotten the stories onto the page and then rushed away.
The translation, while generally solid, adds to the rough-edged feeling. For instance, “Their silence added to the mystery of them” mostly likely should’ve been, “Their silence added to their mystery.”
After reading Madman, it is nearly impossible to believe this collection is a mere 93 pages. Each of the eleven stories only lasts a few pages, but each manages to bring the reader deep into a complex and layered world—and indeed, these stories always head down into layers, never giving a birds-eye view. There aren’t dates, or historical markers, or a way to use this book to “understand” contemporary Iraqis.
Instead, there are stories, madness, and allusions:
The media do not, for example, carry reports of black comedy, just as you do not read stories about what the armies of European democracies do when at night, in a vast forest, they catch a group of terrified humans, drenched in rain, hungry and cold.
The book doesn’t properly answer this question, raised in “The Truck to Berlin.” It moves on to another layer of the story, another layer of madness. But, in this collection, the questions are more than enough.
M. Lynx Qualey is a freelance writer in Cairo. Her memoir appears in AGNI, and she blogs a arablit.wordpress.com.
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