Ian Colford’s Reviews > The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq

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The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim

Read in March 2015

3 of 5 stars

The Corpse Exhibition by Iraqi writer and filmmaker Hassan Blasim includes stories that first appeared in two collections published to great acclaim by Comma Press in the UK in 2009 and 2013, and promoted as the first fictions to emerge from war-torn Iraq to receive English translation and mass distribution. Central to the grotesque and paradoxical narrative art on display here are two concepts that readers will readily associate with war: horror and absurdity. But Blasim is not interested so much in depictions of actual combat as he is in the ongoing state of being at war and the extreme psychological and physical toll that ceaseless chaos and mayhem takes on the country’s soldiers and citizens. For the most part the stories are loosely structured, with most of the action taking place in a pervasive context of imminent threat or danger with no attempt made to explain what the fighting is all about. And to add to the reader’s disorientation, the stories often flip reality on its head and proceed without any grounding in an identifiable reality of cause and effect. In Blasim’s Iraq, a corpse is a work of art, people eke out a living by making knives disappear, a boy drowns in shit, a composer happily endangers himself by writing songs that insult god and religion, and contestants compete for prizes by telling their own story in the hope that it will be judged the most horrific and heartrending of all. This is a world that knows no respite from pain and suffering, where no one is safe, where violent death could be waiting just around the corner and where human life holds little value (the public works labourers who clean the streets of debris after explosions carry special black bags for the body parts). All of this would be supremely heavy going if not for the fact that the stories are laced with black humour and a generous dose of the fantastic and told with a kind of gleeful effervescence that often stands in surreal contrast to the gruesome brutality of the events being described. Like all of us, Blasim’s characters want to grow and thrive and live in peace. But Hassan Blasim is describing a world in which even those modest goals are out of reach for many.