Hassan Blasim's Iraq is a debased and deadly place, and he doesn't let you forget it for a minute. The stories in The Corpse Exhibition are just as claustrophobic as the world they describe: the characters are doomed and the plots, even when they start out sunny, end in disaster. The Corpse Exhibition is an exhausting book. But it's also exciting, in the way that, say, items saved from a burning building are exciting—because they've survived, and because they still smell like fire.
Hassan Blasim is an Iraqi living in Finland. The Corpse Exhibition is his first collection of short stories to be published in America. (The stories were originally written in Arabic but the translation, by Jonathan Wright, feels so colloquial and brash that you forget it's a translation at all.) The stories are primarily concerned with daily life in the country. But much of what you might expect from a book set in today's Iraq is missing. There are no American characters. The American occupation of Iraq does come up for mention, except as a nuisance, rather than as a central element in Iraqi life. Blasim treats Iraq's recent history in a cursory fashion. "The dictator" is mentioned often, as are the Kuwait war and the wars with Iran. But none is treated with much detail; rather, Iraq's problems pile up relentlessly until you can't remember if there was ever a time before the trouble began. Blasim doesn't say much about geography, either. He doesn't tell us what Baghdad, or Kirkuk, look like. He often doesn't tell us what city we're in at all. The streets are crowded and filthy, and the countryside is rocky. It's a landscape of endless, inarticulate trouble and we, the readers, plunge right into the middle of it.
If the details are blurry, it might be partly because Blasim is trying to cram hundreds of different experiences into just a few pages. The Corpse Exhibition shows us how, against a backdrop of strife, everyone's stories become intertwined.
In "The Thousand and One Knives," a group of college students perform magic tricks and forge an unlikely partnership with a poor widow. The students make knives disappear; they reappear in the widow's backyard, and she manages to eke out a living selling them. In "The Reality and the Record," the narrator claims that he was kidnapped by a series of different militia groups. Each group forced him to read a different "confession”—in which he admitted to whatever that particular group asks him. In "An Army Newspaper," a newspaper editor receives notebooks of handwritten literary masterpieces in the mail. They come from a lowly soldier on the frontlines. When the editor hears that the soldier has died, he publishes the stories as his own, and he achieves incredible fame as an author. But more notebooks with new stories by the allegedly dead soldier keep arriving in the mail. Whose stories are they?
Here anyone who tries to hide away is punished. In "The Green Zone Rabbit," a pensive young man gets involved in an unspecified terrorist operation. Yet he spends most of the story waiting aimlessly for an assignment, in a villa in Baghdad's Green Zone. The story is reminiscent of Heinrich Böll's World War Two stories. Like Böll, Blasim stretches out the time that his heroes spend waiting for death. Our hero has days and weeks to fill; he contemplates his childhood and reads impatiently at first and then with a kind of unease: "The world in my head was like a spiderweb that made a faint hum, the hum of a life about to expire, of breaths held. Delicate, horrible wings flapping for the last time."
The story ends with an explosion. As in all the stories in The Corpse Exhibition, the violence is overwhelming. There are no sides, no friends and no enemies. Groups form and disintegrate; friendships fall apart. Sex is almost always violent. Families turn on each other. In "The Song of the Goats," the hero is a luckless young man who killed his brother—by pushing him down a well—when he was three years old. It must, surely, have been an accident, but his family treats him as a murderer. To punish him, his mother puts excrement in his food. Eventually his father, the only kind-hearted character in the story, decides to save him from the draft by smuggling him out of the village in a barrel. But the truck crashes on a rocky hillside and explodes. When the hero realizes he's cheated death, there's no rejoicing; rather, he laments,
The bleating sounded faint at first, as though a choir was practicing. One goat started and then another joined in, then all the goats together, as if they had found the right key. The rays of the sun moved and fell right in my eye. I pissed in my pants inside that barrel, appalled at the cruelty of the world to which I was returning.
Blasim lives away from all the mayhem, in Finland, and the narrators of his last two stories live in Europe, too. But even out of Iraq, these characters are half-strangled by their ties to home. This constraint is clearest in the final story, "The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes," in which an Iraqi gets asylum in Holland and turns his back, disgustedly, on his homeland. Here he is admiring Dutch living:
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 colorful. Why do they respect dogs as much as humans? Why do we masturbate twenty-four hours a day?
The refugee takes on a new name, marries a Dutch woman, and tries his best to start a new life. He learns Dutch in record time and swears that he'll never speak Arabic again. And then the nightmares begin. He dreams that he's forgotten how to speak Dutch—that he's back home in Iraq, being bullied by children—that he's set off a car bomb in the middle of Amsterdam. At the end of the story, the nightmares and reality come crashing into each other. The moral of the story is almost too clear: there's no getting away from your past.
Blasim often flirts with the fantastical, which may be why many reviewers have compared him to Latin American novelists like Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges. Like them, Blasim sometimes blurs the line between the real and unreal. Did that rabbit really lay an egg? Is that dead man really talking? Maybe horror always contains a little bit of mystery. Certainly Blasim's landscape is full of gruesome images that we'd rather think of as imaginary than real. Boys sail paper boats on rivers of shit. Assassins create grotesque tableaux out of their victims and then murder each other because of their artistic differences. How much of this is "real," and how much of it is Blasim's creation? One can only hope much of the menace is imagined, but Blasim himself might suggest that we’d be wagering hope against reason. The only thing we can be certain of here is that this horror exists somewhere, if only in the mind. And, Blasim might say, once it lodges there, it never goes away.