When the Iraq War started I got an urge to collect photographic evidence. The best place for photos was BBC.com. Every day they published shots from the front lines: allied soldiers in full battle gear dozing in the shade of a corrugated metal roof; allied soldiers climbing out of a tank on an empty road at dawn; allied soldiers peering from behind a bullet-scarred cement wall. For four or five months, every Monday through Friday, I looked at the photos and saved them as JPEGs on my hard drive.
I was against the invasion. But I believed the pundits who said Saddam Hussein’s regime didn’t stand a chance. The pundits seemed to be competing with each other to see who could predict the quickest victory. Somehow I was afraid—deeply, weirdly afraid—that the war would end easily, without any real consequences for the United States, and we would keep on bulldozing countries, one after another, for no good reason. I collected photos in order to create a record of the war in case I needed to remind people that it actually happened.
The problem with the BBC photos was they rarely showed Iraqis. Occasionally I’d see an American soldier giving a bottle of water to some Iraqi children, and I’d wonder to what degree the photo had been staged. At best there might be an unnamed Iraqi man at the edge of the frame as soldiers rolled into his village. Inevitably he would be ducking into a doorway.
I do a lot of reading, and I believe that language—especially fiction—is the best way to understand the lives of people who are halfway around the world, either literally or metaphorically. People who are being bombed by your country, for example. I was desperate to understand the particular sounds and smells and emotions of that war. But I knew it would be a long time before I would encounter the Iraqi people from those BBC photographs in fiction. The war would have to stop, and someone from Iraq with a gift for writing would have to process what had happened, and write about it, and find a way to reach me at my local bookstore.
Hassan Blasim’s publisher calls The Corpse Exhibition “the first major literary work about the Iraq War from an Iraqi perspective.” I have been wanting to read a book like this, but The Corpse Exhibition chastises me for wanting it. In “An Army Newspaper,” the editor of a military publication comes across a fictional story written by a soldier on the front lines. The story is brilliant, and the soldier who wrote it has already been killed. So the editor publishes it under his own name. Soon he becomes the most celebrated author in his country. But, inexplicably, the dead soldier’s brilliant stories keep arriving in the mail, hundreds of them each day, “like a storm of locusts,” until the editor—like the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart”—is brought to ruin. Never wish for war fiction, Blasim seems to be saying. The cost is too high.
The Corpse Exhibition presents fourteen stories, translated from Arabic, that were previously published in the UK in two separate volumes. Blasim’s Iraq is a savage, nihilistic place. Saddam Hussein never gets mentioned by name—he is always “the president” or “the dictator,” depending on which way the war has turned. Muslims and Christians fill the stories, but their gods hold no sway here. The book’s humble, pragmatic vision of heaven, as put forth in “The Madman of Freedom Square,” is an Iraqi neighborhood with working telephone lines, an adult literacy program, and flowers.
Blasim writes some of the most gut-wrenching violence I’ve seen in print, but it’s usually an afterthought. What horrifies you instead are Blasim’s details, and the effects of violence on personal relationships and individual identities. When the narrator of “The Reality and the Record” gets kidnapped and taken to a strange house where his captors nearly kill him, the outstanding detail—for the narrator and for readers—is the smell of grilled fish coming from a different room. In “The Iraqi Christ,” the transformation that comes over a suicide bomber before he detonates himself is more chilling than the explosion itself.
His features changed to reveal another face, as though he had taken off a mask. He grasped the flap of his jacket and pulled it aside like someone baring his chest.
“It’s an explosive belt. One word from you and I’ll blow myself up.”
In Blasim’s Iraq, everyday citizens unwittingly become the agents of terrible destruction. The suicide bomber in “The Iraqi Christ” forces a bystander to switch places with him, and the bystander becomes the bomber. The narrator of “The Reality and the Record” is an ambulance driver who gets kidnapped and forced to play a role in the video transmissions of revolutionary factions. The story turns almost comical as it describes how casually the terrorist’s videos are produced, and how seriously they are interpreted around the world.
Throughout the year and a half of my kidnapping experience, I was moved from one hiding place to another. They shot video of me talking about how I was a treacherous Kurd, an infidel Christian, a Saudi terrorist, a Syrian Baathist intelligence agent, or a Revolutionary Guard from Zoroastrian Iran. On these videotapes I murdered, raped, started fires, planted bombs, and carried out crimes that no sane person would even imagine. All these tapes were broadcast on satellite channels around the world. Experts, journalists, and politicians sat there discussing what I said and did.
No one seems to be a villain in these stories, but everyone is implicated in the bloodshed. Your grandmother is just as likely to have blood on her hands as the local terrorist commander—or you, for that matter. To be admirable in Blasim’s stories you don’t have to be innocent; you just have to try and defend your sanity and your individual identity. Marwan, a character in “Crosswords,” is typical of this ongoing struggle. He survives a suicide blast at his office, only to be haunted by visions of the policeman who died at the scene. Marwan’s identity and the policeman’s fuse together, with appalling psychological results.
Although the translation is rough at times—I don’t envy anyone who translates from Arabic—The Corpse Exhibition is shocking, urgent, vital literature. I will be surprised if another work of fiction this Important, with a capital I, gets published all year. If you’re human, and you are even remotely aware that a war was recently fought in Iraq, you ought to read The Corpse Exhibition.
The last five words in The Corpse Exhibition are “like a sun in hell.” Whether you love this book or not may come down to how you feel about a simile like that. Does it strike you as overkill? Or might it be precisely the kind of overkill that describes the horror of living through a house-by-house war in your hometown? If the latter, then Blasim should hang a sign that says MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
– Brian Hurley