Archive | July 2018

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq – Hassan Blasim

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq


“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”
― Sue Monk Kidd


The crack of dawn is just half an hour away. I’m neither interested in the passing night nor the approaching new day. Two fried eggs on a rye toast for breakfast. That is what I’m thinking. That is what I shall eat among the stench of blood, the sordid gore and a curious child fishing for a frog in a puddle of blood. The images don’t seem to leave me. The voices crowded my auditory senses. The book clutching in my palms as the heaviness akin to a corpse that now takes over my sensibilities ,words engulf me, maybe it’s the heavy silence of the passing night or my mental claustrophobia that has become the mythical Hydra. I knew it right then that this book will frequent my sanity for weeks to come.


Because every child born in this world is simply a possibility, either to be good or evil, according to the classification set by schools of religious education in this stupid world. But it’s a completely different matter to us. Every child that’s born is just an extra burden on the ship that is about to sink.


Are human corpses the wartime metric scale upon which a country’s heroics are measured? As the world unified in blindness revelling in the creativity of death, a trained assassin learned his first tutorial, the infliction of banal humanity beheaded on the pillar of cowardice. The bloody knife glistened to the tune of a sombre child’s lullaby inaugurating the corpse exhibition, taking a deep bow was the mortician, a truly great war-time artist working overtime with utmost gratitude and kindness, elegantly restoring mutilated corpses. Watch for fear in people’s eyes, he said. A lesson on ‘how to be a lion’ imparted from the palms of a delinquent. In the quest of being one’s own God, the killers and the compass stamped into the memory of physical and sexual brutalities. Is it really worth having trust in humans when the sanctity of human conscience is in exile? Why are graveyards the only real estate bought during the war? In absurdities of assassinations and power grabbing egotistical vanities where betrayal is as common as stepping into a bloody puddle, the green zone rabbit awaits to lay an egg. The web of psychological wiles nestled in a silenced revolver; a pensive youth embarks on an unspecified terrorist operation puzzled over the validity of an egg laying rabbit.


Life and death was a game of running, climbing and jumping, of watching, of secret dirty words of sleep and nightmares.


To the dead of the war writes an army newspaper, the words of poetry and prose shall honour the martyrs with sublime tales woven with love and destiny, honesty and valour, memoirs of humanity. Personal vanity and desperation hastily layers with the madness of the war. Greed, lies and deceit ravaged the spirit of an literary editor, the built-in incinerator a silent witness to coloured workbooks and inhumane folly. Horror and paranoia stumbled in the sea of coffins. War and peace became permanent riddles, down and across imprinted in a sinister crossword. The shrieks of a trapped soul deafening the darkness of a tormented life try to solve the life and death enigma.


Aren’t we humans, killing and looting mankind to ruination similar to devils and ‘jinni’, residing in our own holes of idiocies and hallucinating in our cannibalistic overtures? The language of mankind challenges the language of God in the depths of an underground hole. The purging of earth from devils is detailed in the bizarre rituals of a cannibalistic jinni. The war of religion and politics gets wrapped around the lives of the innocent; terror paralyzing the silence of peace. History and heritage of a land lost among the missile noises and military coup. Tales of Western agents and exotic blondes with guns misplaced among the disregarded words of the madman of Freedom Square. The baptized soul waited to view the fated empty chair, a prayer for his beloved mother led into a journey to the next world. The Iraqi Christ overwhelmed by a mysterious desire for salvation.


Spilled blood and superstition are the basis of the world. Man is not the only creature who kills for bread or love or power, because animals in the jungle do that in the various ways, but he is the only creature who kills because of faith.


A magical tale of a thousand and one knives portrays violence in the extremities of pain and torment. The mysteries of the magical knives remain unsolved as do the mystery of humans taking comfort and pleasure in crucifying their brethren. The bleating of goats recounted a grim memory of a septic tank, a pulsating cry in the murkiness of a prosaic tale. The chorus of the song of the goats blaring from the loudspeakers infiltrated the competitive troubled narratives, a prize in offing. The sanctimonious virtue of religion is marred by selfish desires, murderers and thieves thriving under religious cloaks. The emergence of false gods examining moral compasses of human obligation to schizophrenic religious dogmas. Is then life a burden or a blessing? The songs of a composer paying the price of patriotism muddled with militant insurgency. The pillars of religion, humanity and patriotism; in the chaos of flesh and fire which one outweighs the rest and which one crumbles? The fate of an inauspicious smile dangling between the curses of agony and joy, vaguely chants “the body must be protected, not the thoughts”.


Why are the trees so green and beautiful as though they’re washed with water every day? Why can’t we be peaceful like them? We live in houses like pigsties. While their houses are warm, safe and colourful. Why do they respect dogs as much as humans? Why do we masturbate twenty-four hours a day? How can we get a decent government here?


War and migration, the trials and tribulations of refuges in the aftermath is filled with humiliation and dreams of a dignified life. The question of securing asylum is solved by a constant dread of wavering stories of killers and heroes. The ordeal of a wounded man recounts seeking asylum in the reality and the record of an abstract truth. Dreams that never learnt the language of a new country, survival in an adopted homeland burdened with philosophies of pride and indignity. The ghosts of the pasts wear out the fate of a vulnerable being trying to find the meaning of life. The valuable existence of Salim Abdul Husain disseminating in the recurring nightmares of Carlos Fuentes.


Iraq, a country besieged by the cycle of war and death and its citizens trapped in the nihilistic trenches of insanity. Hassan Blasim’s anthology of challenging stories pierces right through the heart with glimpses of a land dwelling in visceral horror and repellent irrationalities. The history of Iraq spans from the horrific eight yearlong Iraq-Iran War (1980-88), American troops occupancy, dictatorship (Saddam Hussein), militant Kurdish insurgency, mushrooming terrorist organisations and an endless loop of civil war. Dubbed as the ‘Iraqi Kafka’, Blasim pens a memorable yet haunting ugly truth of menacing savagery and failure of human conscience without a glimmer of wisdom. The meaningless world of war prevails in hopelessness, bloodlust and bloodshed. The surrealistic nature of these metaphorical tales let out an honest cry of a dystopian homeland.


There is nothing beautiful about war. There is no triumph in it. Victories marred with the blood of the innocent. Are the dead happy over the victories of war? Do the dead agonize over their crimes or martyrdom? Are the sufferers ever liberated from the shadows of war? The dead become mere statistics until the next battle. The fragility of life measured with the next conquest. Is annihilating civilization seen as a laudation for bravery? Do the footsteps of peace have to march on the road strewn with bloodied corpses? In a world where allegiance to dogmas of faith outweighs the respect to mankind, the lines of real and unreal are blurred by hostilities and fanaticism, the sanity of humankind rotting in an abyss of mortal horror; there will be no escape from the chaos of war.



The Taste of Apples – Huang Chun-ming

The Taste of Apples


It has been months since I put my pen to paper. Words keep struggling against my emotions, the range of my imagination jammed up in literary reflections. As I sat with an open book in my lap, Huang Chun-ming’s characters gazing right back into my face, I pondered on the thought of how human survival becomes magnified when human condition thrives at the lowest rung of the societal ladder. Marginalised people, forgotten lives overlooked by the socioeconomic indicators, suffering at the hands of their affluent counterparts and their stories steeped in inherent universality, hesitant in finding an ardent voice to uncover the social process of basic human survival conflicted in a world of contradiction and confliction.


“ Ah-cang , the next time you come home, try to bring a fish back with you. It’s not easy getting a saltwater fish up here on the mountain. Bring a big one if you can.”


The cooked bonito wrapped in taro leaf swayed heartlessly into fragmented happy endings. The saltwater fish fairly symbolizes the temporary victories harboured by a child on a threshold of youth, only to mercilessly fade into a vague far-fetched desire bearing harsh realities of trust and resentment. Self-doubt, a sense of personal inadequacies creeps through the rickety windows of paranoia. A yearned escape from loneliness and fatigue seeks a satisfying reprieve in an infant’s smile. A loving father on a verge of a mental breakdown dons his “sandwich-man” costume for he has always been his son’s ‘big doll’ “Oh! I’m Ah-long’s big doll, his big doll!!”


Trepidations over birth control and poverty find a respite in the scaly outlines of ringworms patterned on infected bodies. Minor events captured in everyday subsistence become majorly momentous in these impoverished lives. The currency of luck shines in most dreadful ordeals. A looming tragedy compensating a family’s fortune, an unforeseen affluence now a commonplace in penurious existence is filled with a surge of anxiety and guilt over bewildering kismet. The sour taste of the apples devoured with a demure crunch was sweetened with every bite as the thought of a luxury unknown heightened with the chorus of noisy munching.


“Principles I’ve held on to tenaciously for many years and that have formed my unique personality and temperament – are they to be cast aside now? Then why have them in the first place? It wouldn’t seem like the real me without them. “


Caught up in an ambivalent world of mangled moralities, a mask of pleasantries worn to handle two onerous affairs makes a young office employee question the value of adhered ideologies and the inevitability of primary survival. The wounds of a tragic Japanese-Chinese history (1930s) conflicted with the provisional role of a “pimp” to entertain visiting Japanese businessmen , a quest to move from the bitter past resulting in artful linguistic diplomacy and friendly sayonora/zaijian greetings in a rapidly changing societal mores.


“Memories of the past are always fond ones and this was especially true for these men in their twilight years; only their past instilled a sense of pride.”


With the advent of modernisation and Pedi cabs, the aging men of a rural village, the gong-beaters of a quaint town, migrant workers and the unaltered rural landscapes, all caught between the old and new are propelled into a state of hopelessness, a feeling of invisibility blending into the inability to adapt to change. The present seem to be crumbling into prospects of an innovative future overshadowing humble heritages and traditionalistic customs. Amid the peals of laughter, the drowning of an old cat demarcated the irreversible modernisation and a tale of stubbornness of a man and his rebellion. A world of absurdities and turmoil is formed when two-sign painters get entangled in the web of technology and media in metropolitan culture. The beats of Han Qinzai’s gong succumbing to the monopoly of pedicabs, a desperate man holding onto the last crumbs of his fading fortune seeks salvage in ghost stories and a group of vagrants for a momentary boost of a dignified life. For, when fortune goes missing from one’s life, all a man has left are the remains of his reputation, a final refuge to belong somewhere in this societal structure. The concept of losses and gains and a lackadaisical attitude spun chronicles of two pressure cooker salesmen in a little coastal town. The thin line between faith and deception quivering between courage and cowardice hurls unforeseen folds of events wrecking illusions of perfection. The disfigurement of harsh reality lay bare underneath Xiaoqi’s cap signalling underlying societal metaphors.


..………. I figure that the hardest compromise to strike would be with myself, for if I put a side my principles, what would I have left?


Huang Chun-ming’s short stories penned in circa 1960-70s, exclusively focuses on the intricacies of the then thriving Taiwanese society; its rural folk being the crucial element. The so-called “ordinary folk”( a term I detest to use, for these very people exhibit extraordinary grit of survival), societal rejects who are witnesses to a hostile socio-economic milieu, coping with effects of illiteracy , debilitating poverty , migration to urban cities, adherence to conformist dogmas , muddled self-worth , modernisation and callousness of urban life. Human existence at its most detrimental stage. Nevertheless, what is remarkable about these engaging stories is the array of characters that come alive through the subtle yet sincere prose narrating their unique tales, their robust presence felt throughout numerous incidents spanning across their lives from the countryside to the metropolitan cities. Huang neither pities his characters nor want his readers to do the same. In the despair of an obsolete existence what is desperately searched is wisdom and dignity, a need to be acknowledged and cherished in a world where remorse overpowers elation, where the reservations of the past are carried in a shaky present, dreaming of an uncertain future and all a basic survival needs is a true sense of humanity.



4/5 ****