In Hassan Blasim’s “The Song of the Goats,” hundreds of Iraqis “were waiting in queues to tell their stories. The police intervened to marshal the crowd, and the main street opposite the radio station was closed to traffic.”
“The Song of Goats” opens Blasim’s new collection, “The Iraqi Christ” (2013). It is not the only piece in which Iraqis are eager to tell their stories. It is a theme that is prevalent not just in Blasim’s work, but elsewhere in contemporary Iraqi fiction — each Iraqi now has something to tell, and many are bursting to get their stories out. “The Iraqi Christ” is Blasim’s second collection, following on the heels of his “Madman of Freedom Square” (2010). His first collection, which was also translated by Jonathan Wright, was longlisted for the UK’s International Foreign Fiction award.
Blasim, who left Iraq in 2004 for Finland, has been a vocal and visible proponent of finding new ways to tell Iraqi stories. He helped found the website iraqstory.com, which features dozens of Iraqi writers. He is also spearheading an “Iraq 2103” project along with the UK’s Comma Press. In the collection, Iraqi authors will share stories set 100 years after the start of the occupation. Blasim also works in film and theater, and has called for a “revolution against classical Arabic.”
Blasim’s stories are still written largely in classical Arabic, although he said in a UK appearance last December “that one day I want to write just in colloquial,” adding that, “When you write in fusha you are like something from history. How can you write like Ibn Arabi about car bombs?”
The most prevalent theme in Blasim’s new collection is not car bombs, but the nature of storytelling. In the opening work, “The Song of the Goats,” Iraqis gather outside a radio station, hoping to win a spot on a program called “Their Stories in Their Own Voices.” A number of stories will be chosen to run on the program, and the station’s listeners will choose the top three, with each winning a prize.
After the first batch of contestants is ushered into the building, the radio producers play a sample story for the waiting crowd. The story is told by a woman whose husband was tortured and decapitated and is certainly tragic. But no one in the studio is moved. Indeed, after the story concludes, “Everyone was talking at the same time, like a swarm of wasps.” A woman close to ninety mutters, “That’s a story!? If I told my story to a rock, it would break its heart.”
“The Song of the Goats” ends abruptly. We never hear the stories of the narrator, nor the others who have lined up to tell theirs — only the two official stories chosen by the radio station. We do not know if the others got to tell their stories, or who “wins.” Blasim’s short stories are often like this: They drag you into a surreal, rocky, emotionally difficult place, and then they leave you there, blinking, without resolution.
Most of Blasim’s stories are in the first person, told by a character who seems rushed to get the words out, to unburden himself. The characters hallucinate. Stories shift and turn back on themselves. The line between the real and the bizarre is frequently violated, kicked aside—as though the conflict is re-making the borders of reality.
The theme of Iraqis who cannot help but tell their stories is echoed in other Iraqi fictions, such as Muna Fadhil’s “Sandstorm.” In that story, civil servants, each of whom “would have seen at least one murder or bomb site within the past 24 hours,” compete to tell the most horrific story of the day.
Blasim’s narratives crowded against one another, one shoving against the next. In, “Why Don’t You Write a Novel Instead of Talking About All These Characters?” the landscape is jammed, much like the Hungarian quarantine it describes, with “Afghans, Arabs, Kurds, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Bangladeshis, Africans, and some Albanians.” In the story, memories and stories are confused. Is the protagonist “Hassan Blasim” or is he someone else?
The stories are loud, sometimes uneven, sometimes rambling. They are sometimes like sitting on a bus beside a crazy man who pulls out one fascinating, thought-provoking anecdote after another, but rarely finishes one before he leaps headlong into another. Blasim also has a cutting dark humor, as when a young Finnish novelist asks the protagonist of “The Dung Beetle” “with a genuine look of astonishment and curiosity, ‘How did you read Kafka? Did you read him in Arabic? How could you discover Kafka that way?’ I felt as I were a suspect in a crime and the Finnish novelist was the detective, and that Kafka was a Western treasure that Ali Baba, the Iraqi, had stolen.”
“The Dung Beetle,” also an examination of the nature of stories, opens in what could be Blasim’s own voice:
“Doctor, there are stories for children and very short stories for sick people who no longer have much time. There are stories for the beach, that is to say, summer stories for women reclining in the sun topless, lazy stories about the excrement of reality, stories for the elite, for boring times, for pregnant mothers, for prisoners. I can’t write a story but I can tell a story. I crave incessant talk … I have a flock of sparrows inside me … ha!”
Certainly, Blasim can write a story. But he may also have a flock of sparrows inside him, each struggling in its own direction, needing to tell its individual tale, to peck its way out into the light.