War Stories

Iraq, Terror, and the Surreal: Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Corpse Exhibition’

A surreal and haunting collection of stories about the spectacle of violence and how war worms its way into daily life by Iraqi author, Hassan Blasim.

Steve Bronstein/Getty

The title story in The Corpse Exhibition, Hassan Blasim’s new book, masquerades as a lecture delivered to an initiate who has just joined a cult of assassins. In this secretive group, agents go by code names like “the Nail” and “Satan’s Knife,” and “display” their victims’ bodies in grotesque ways calculated to terrify the citizens of an unnamed country in what seems like the modern Middle East.

The catch, and the story’s most brilliant conceit, is that unlike real terrorists, Blasim’s fictional killers operate on principles artistic, not political or religious. As the initiate (who stands in for the reader) is told: “You can shine like a precious jewel amid the wreckage of this country. To display a corpse for others to see is the ultimate in the creativity we are seeking and that we are trying to study and benefit from. Personally I can’t stand the agents who are unimaginative.”

By the end of the tale, the initiate-reader has been praised, sickened, threatened, and depending on how you read the final line, slain—making “The Corpse Exhibition” one of those highly conceptual stories that in lesser hands might come off as showy or overly contrived. Blasim, however, delivers it like an incantation, illustrating an essential yet underwritten aspect of terrorism: what Lawrence Wright calls the “dramatic ambitions” of terrorists. “Theater,” Wright claims, “is always a feature of terror.”

Reading Blasim, one becomes certain he shares this view of violence as a performance in which the most nefarious actors always keep the audience in mind.

In another of The Corpse Exhibition’s standouts, “The Reality and the Record,” an Iraqi kidnap victim is traded between insurgent groups who dress him in different costumes depending on who their enemies are, forcing him into a revolving role in their propaganda videos. The story’s power to disturb comes partly from the fact that its surreal premise actually cuts hauntingly close to reality. Kidnap markets were reported to exist in Iraq during the worst of last decade’s sectarian fighting. Blasim’s hostage, the story’s narrator, lays it out best:

“They shot video of me talking about how I was a treacherous Kurd, an infidel Christian, a Saudi terrorist, a Syrian Baathist intelligence agent, or a Revolutionary Guard from Zoroastrian Iran. On these videotapes I murdered, raped, started fires, planted bombs, and carried out crimes that no sane person would even imagine. All these tapes were broadcast on satellite channels around the world. Experts, journalists, and politicians sat there discussing what I said and did.”

It reads at first like a gesture toward the absurd until you’re gripped by the awareness that this might be our world Blasim is describing, one he tells us is “built to have more than one level.”

The stories in The Corpse Exhibition are constructed similarly, eschewing traditional dramatic arcs in favor of ambitious, roundabout structures. They rely more on the strength of their ideas than barnburner narratives. In this way Blasim plants his flag squarely in the tradition of Kafka, Borges, and other writers of surreal and otherwise metaphysical fiction.

Blasim is not the kind of post-modern absurdist who trades in forced, inconsequential whimsy. He has a vital subject and takes it seriously: Iraq and its people. Blasim’s stories address the past several decades of the country’s history and are set during the war with Iran, the aftermath of the Gulf War and UN sanctions, and in the midst of the horrors following the most recent U.S. invasion.

Armed conflict is one of its dominant themes, but The Corpse Exhibition (translated by Jonathan Wright) is not so much a book of war stories as a book of stories about how war worms its way into every aspect of life. It is a slim but potent collection and will go a long way to making Blasim’s name in American literary circles. He is currently better known overseas, especially in Europe, where The Guardian’s Robin Yassin-Kassab called him “perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive.”

Although Blasim has already received much praise from Western critics, Arab states have been less forthcoming. Comma Press (Blasim’s UK publisher) reports Jordan banned the Arabic version of The Madman of Freedom Square, one of his earlier books, and in 1998 Blasim himself fled artistic persecution in Baghdad to settle in Kurdish-controlled Iraq, relocating again to Finland in 2004.

The last story in the book and one of its most heartbreaking is “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes,” which dramatizes this refugee experience. In the story, an Iraqi man manages to escape “misery, backwardness, death, shit, piss, and camels,” obtaining asylum in the Netherlands. There he takes a new name, Carlos Fuentes, figuring that as a brown-skinned man living in Amsterdam, his life will be easier if he can pass as “Cuban or Argentinian.”

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Carlos Fuentes embraces his new identity, marrying a Dutch woman, learning the language in record time, and even enrolling in “numerous courses in Dutch culture and history.” He is the kind of patriotic Hollander that even the right-wing might hold up as an immigrant poster boy, declaring, “give me a country that treats me with respect, so that I can worship it all my life and pray for it.”

Carlos Fuentes does everything he can to put Iraq and the past behind him, but inevitably, the past intrudes to raze the present and brings Fuentes’s new life crashing down. The story is satisfying in a tragic sense, and admiring its artfulness, one can only predict Blasim’s own future will be much brighter than his character’s. He has written a fresh and disturbing book, full of sadness and humor, alive with intelligent contradiction. In keeping with Iraq’s ancient storytelling tradition, it is this willingness to embrace and even revel in irony and antagonism—the tedious and the fantastic, the poetic and the obscene—that defines his much-needed perspective on a war-ravaged country.