The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (trans. by Jonathan Wright). Comma Press. 176pp.
Much will be made of the perceived ultraviolence of Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ, just as much was made of the perceived ultraviolence of his previous collection, The Madman of Freedom Square. However, this relegates his project to a kind of deep-level reportage: first there are the minute-by-minute reports, then the longer, more delving pieces, and finally the literature, where the ultraviolence belongs to the level of the symbolic. Seen this way, literature is no longer news that stays news: it’s one flow within the ever-widening news-cycle, along with the talking heads analysis and nostalgia footage.
Blasim’s critical reception to date is aligned with this continuum. It’s unseemly to speculate on the reasons for a book’s emergence—surely his artistic courage and the singular work of Comma Press should be enough on their own—but there must be something to this book’s arrival ten years after the beginning of the Iraq War debacle.
But The Iraqi Christ is topical only in the sense of the earliest known newsflashes: the cracked screeds, battlefield reports, and shipwreck stories by the likes of Archilochus, for instance, which remain with us in the form of fragments. These were news before they were ever classical references—indigestible gobbets of event, borne on and on by the flow of telling. Blasim dramatizes this process on a tighter scale: information floats and recurs, tales snap off without us knowing who the teller ever was, like the “auto-destruct” stories of Roberto Bolaño. The violence is shocking, but the most disturbing implications of this collection concern literature itself. The Iraqi Christ interrogates the “literary response” to those events which begin as happenstance and end as history. This interrogation leaves the “literary response” battered, fractured, and, in some cases, entirely invisible.
Opening story “The Song of the Goats” presents itself as a framing device. A vast queue of people wait outside Memory Radio for their turn in a short story competition. As expected, we get Borgesian involutions and recursions, and they are steep. Quotation marks nest within one another: the narrator relays one tale to us whose teller quotes others quoting him: “They said, ‘You confessed yourself.’” Because Blasim names himself three times in the collection, we may well believe that “The Song of the Goats” is another signal which he is relaying on to the reader. Everything is spoken, and this turn toward orature produces some interesting stylistic effects. There is the smoothness of what sound like weathered proverbs, but which may just be meant to sound that way (“The storms of life had carried me far away”; “Everything we do in this ephemeral world is written, preordained”).
Unlike Borges, though, Blasim lets his stacked layers teeter and fall. The narrator brags that he has “more than twenty stories teeming in my brain” concerning his captivity in Iran. We hear none of them. The first entry is shouted down by an unappreciative audience, and the one who is “tipped to win” doesn’t even open his mouth. Too many storytellers clamor after the mic for anyone to matter. This implication blasts apart the homespun wish for storytelling to be a tie that binds: a story becomes whatever matters more to the person doing the telling than the person doing the listening. The uneven metaphysics of the talent contest, with one guy on the podium and the rest of us listening—or chafing at having to listen—remains firmly in place. Moreover, Blasim provides us with none of the Argentine master’s placid symmetries: while the story seems to set itself up as a framing device for the entire collection, this is the first and last time we hear of Memory Radio.
In interviews Blasim has spoken of his desire to collapse traditional stylistic distinctions which still exist in written Arabic: structurally and linguistically, he is out to shatter his precedents, be they classics of rhetoric or “modern classics” like Borges. Fittingly enough, the first of his recurring images is an armless, legless grotesque, “like a decrepit statue.” The title “The Song of the Goats” battens on to the hoary old Greek pun of “tragedy” being a “goat’s song” and gives us real life goats. This provides an entirely opposite effect to that of the pataphor: language is purged of its metaphors, in Sartre’s phrase. Tragedy is reduced to an inarticulate, after-the-fact whine, all the less important because it is the braying of multitudes.
Blasim’s is a smashed infinity, as opposed to the calmer, mapped infinities of someone like Borges. The tellers’ value is canceled out by their number (they are compared to “a swarm of wasps”) and contingency (at any moment, they could be smeared to a “pulp” by an explosion). The word “pulp” so close to mention of “wasps” reminds us that the paper on which stories is written is wood-pulp chewed flat.
If there is an intimate, bodily continuity between our lives and the narratives we make of them, then it is an alimentary one. Our lives’ stories are written on a pulp of blood and muscle. We chew that meat of event in to a digestible mass, but this is a process that can never be completed, only interrupted. Blasim plays this for a grim laugh: another veiled image for writing is the little paper boats two young boys set afloat on a lake of shit.
While the collection’s first story dismantles its own capacity to act as a framing device, its thematic tightness concentrates the rest of the collection into one jet of violent horror and brutal, lyrical diction. The best of these is probably “The Killers and the Compass,” a bleak, cartoonish cavalcade involving three layers of storytelling. The narrative and descriptive voice is terse and rapid (“The night it happened Abu Hadid was fucking Johnny’s pretty brown daughter on the roof of the house”), and the comic exchanges (especially the one concerning fish in salt water) draw laughter which feels more like you are coughing your lungs clear of smoke.
Blasim is vocal in his admiration of Kafka’s storytelling methods (as opposed to his alternative status as a literary saint), but the story puts him in a much older tradition. Its direction spiders on like the cracks in a wall: unstintingly linear, even while looking crazed. In “Fifth Floor Window,” a character catches sight of another’s scorpion tattoo, which prompts an embedded recollection about childhood games of scorpion-trapping. The recollection becomes the basis of a rather inert story, but the causal connection between recollection and telling is troubled when an allusion to Mr.Palomar is made violently literal. The seam vanishes between a consciousness which merely narrates and one which “causes” what it narrates. Fact and invention collapse in to one another, and a disturbing climate of solipsism descends.
At such moments as these, Blasim surrenders all pretense to historicity. Like Isaac Babel, he doggedly chases down each and every narrative line as the prompt is encountered. In this way, Blasim collapses both a story’s chronology and its significance into one flow of data. In “The Hole,” for instance, a character opens by reporting his own death to us, returning to a full account of his death only later in the tale. The implosion of narrative logic finds a wider resonance in the story’s collapse of historical distinctions: the narrator finds himself in a hole with a cannibalistic djinn, who is feeding on a victim’s body from the Russian-Finnish War. The hole is to be a place where events catch and linger outside time, to become a repository for future suffering. The djinn feeds on one body, just as the narrator feeds on the djinn’s when another dead person arrives.
This use of specific historical detail—both from an imagined conflict and an actual one—in a context more appropriate to the oral tradition makes all of history seem like one long, grotesque hallucination, much like the queasy surrealist lurches in Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile. Blasim is fond of twisting his narrative around images drawn from oral storytelling: for instance, in “The Song of the Goats,” a boy hides in a barrel while his crippled father hops about hammering in airholes. This comes a few days “after we were invaded again”: the specificity is blurred here, and the use of an image straight out of the Brothers Grimm pushes all history in to the shape of grotesque. The effect is far more devastating than a “straight” narration of Iraq’s present turmoil: it creates a disturbing, timeless quality.
The use of old-style tropes, however, doesn’t weigh down Blasim’s narrative sleight of hand. While resorting to an animal narrator may seem hackneyed (“Dear Beto”), we only become aware of this fact later in the tale, so that the strange, Lutzian atmosphere of sexual encroachment and battening-on seems as much human as it does animal, further collapsing our consoling distinctions.
Blasim’s sense of horror ranges across the full gamut of space and history, as if horror is what pulsates under the skin of the ordinary. Occasionally, even the language cracks, as in “The Crosswords.” The strange clues devised by one of the characters (“a vertical tunnel”, “a broken womb”) are like doors into the terrifying hallucination from which reality emanates. The under-voice of the story, that of a policeman whose shrapnel is embedded in the body of the narrator, shows us that not even the borders between people are secure.
Occasionally, this sense of teeming contingency becomes a little too close to a Jungian view of “the nature of things,” especially in the faux-Buddhist rêverie of “Dear Beto” (“the hidden self . . . that lies beyond pain,” arrived at “[w]hen you lose everything and snap like a bone”). Also, because Blasim’s voice is so scathing and concentrated, it is impossible to tell if he is playing this for parodic intent.
These are auto-destruct stories which detonate in front of the reader: they simply happen, and then they are gone. The assembly—or reassembly—of sense can never be complete. The voices appear and vanish. Even when we can listen to them for a sustained period, they are hypocritical laments in which the speakers ignores their own complicity: yet another collapse of distinction. The dog-narrator laments that:
They have cut their humanity’s throat from ear to ear
and sat down weeping at its feet. They have created poems
for the dignity of humanity, while others created long wars
that have yet to end, and perhaps never will. Their poems are
awash with shame and loss, and they still smile like clowns.
These wars which “perhaps never will” end do not “just feel that way”: Blasim’s sense of history and his rigorous purification of the figurative from his diction won’t allow this possibility. The only model for communication which he can countenance is “a voice that communicates by gestures” relayed by a “silent and plantlike minority.” Throughout Blasim’s work, trees are variously linked to peace, lament, and—in his previous collection—poignantly doomed attempts to love something which is too insentient to reciprocate. Additionally, Blasim has remarked that he chooses the short story form because of its resemblance to oral communication (“I just want to share it, like I would with a friend”).
Out of The Iraqi Christ’s clamor of voices and explosions comes the hard-won conclusion that the book is a give and take of conversation, a conversation in which careful listening rather than compelling speech is the goal. To follow every crack and distortion, to bear close witness to the roil of contingencies, and then to pass it on: if we are forced to discuss literature on “topical” events in the language of reportage, then Blasim’s chosen mode is exemplary.
Tim Smyth graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 2011. Twitter: @TimSmyth1.
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