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Broken tales from Iraq

Hassan Blasim’s new collection of stories, “The Iraqi Christ” mixes lyricism and mordancy

Simon Willis | May/June 2013

TITLE The Iraqi Christ
AUTHOR Hassan Blasim
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE Arabic
TRANSLATOR Jonathan Wright

These stories, not yet published in Arabic, take devastation as their subject and model, ten years after the start of the war in Iraq. They are fragmentary, jagged little shards about the psychic and physical costs of wara lot of people die, and others have to pick through the pieces. They range over the Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf war as well as the invasion of 2003 and the sectarian nightmare that followed, but their power lies in banality as much as brutality. In a story called "Crosswords", a little boy discovers that his best friend’s father has died. He runs to tell his mum, who promptly sends him off to buy half a kilo of onions.

Blasim’s tone is a resilient blend of mordancy and broken lyricism. Some pieces have the feel of oral history, others are as zany as a fever dream. The best gives the book its title. Daniel, an Iraqi Christian who has served in both Gulf wars, returns to live with his incontinent elderly mother after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue. One day they go to a kebab restaurant, and Daniel ends up committing an atrocity that is also an act of love. In this book, even mercy comes at a terrible cost.

A few of these stories are complex puzzles of times and voices that are hard to reassemble. But their brokenness is fitting. In the opening story, "The Song of the Goats", listeners to a radio programme pile into a hall in Baghdad to tell their tales of the war. One woman relates how her husband was kidnapped by a sectarian gang and delivered back to her headless and decomposing. Laughter breaks out. "That’s a story!?" 

The Iraqi Christ Comma Press, out now

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