These stories, translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright, present a vivid, sometimes lurid picture of wartime Iraq. But they are much more than miniature portraits of the country. Blasim is particularly interested in the slippery space between reality and story, and even the most realistic stories in his collection have an element of the surreal. The reader walks on solid ground one moment, and the next the ground gives way — sending him tumbling into deep, otherworldly holes ... These dark and sometimes bitterly funny stories are shape-shifting, Borgesian tales in which often we discover the narrator is mad or lying. But even when the stories betray their tellers, the characters can't give up narrating their lives. The act of storytelling is at the chaotic center of this collection's violent, bleak and occasionally beautiful world ... Blasim's are not finely wrought stories, where each word feels as though it has been carefully glued into place. Instead, they are stories where the reader is dragged along and left suddenly with a handful of ashes ... But it is in these rough patches that Blasim's argument for a truth emerges.
...the stories in The Corpse Exhibition hang together like a series of horror portraits excerpted from the past thirty-five years of Iraqi history, touching on the casual terrors of life under the Baathist regime, the losses of the Iran-Iraq war, and most especially the disorder, mistrust, venality, and injudicious killing during the years of American Occupation ... In spare, kinetic prose, and an efficiently brutalist focus that rivals the sarcastic, schematic nightmares of Ballard’s work from the late 60’s and early 70’s, Blasim continually pushes the acidic realism of his stories to a point where they warp into instances of confrontational, gritty conceptualism ... their sustained proximity to the worst aspects of human cruelty, and the clarity with which they render it, has trained their nerves to reject any manner of transcendentalism or noble posturing.
There are no sides and no front in the Iraqi exile Hassan Blasim’s arresting, auspicious story collection The Corpse Exhibition, only paranoid top dogs and desperate bottom feeders ... The Corpse Exhibition heralds a writer whose promise deepens as the book progresses. Mr. Blasim peoples his first few stories here with violent Iraqi young men, who count life cheap. They boast, kill, watch movies, even discover good books with that casual fatalism recognizable among futureless teenagers, both abroad and at home ... As with many of the stories here, a somewhat askew framing device brackets the action, raising doubts about the reliability, even the reality, of what’s going on. Yes, more than a few stories here are, unhappy phrase, about storytelling ... The Corpse Exhibition takes Mr. Blasim from pulpy, claustrophobic two-handers about easy death to well-plotted, blackly comic meditations on the difficulty of survival. It’s unclear in what order he wrote these stories, but their sequence imparts a mounting novelistic power.
Blasim’s slim new volume gives us an asylum-seeker’s experience as a kidnapping victim, a young man’s admiration for his murderous older brother, and an unwilling suicide bomber’s love for his mother. But Blasim also throws in a magic ring, a disappearing-knife trick, and an egg-laying rabbit. Nightmarish stories evoke Kafka and Borges, and his characters invoke Pessoa, Fuentes, and One Thousand and One Nights. The result is fourteen tautly written stories-within-stories, Blasim’s fervent response to recent Iraqi history ... In Jonathan Wright’s translation from the Arabic, Blasim writes vividly and directly, though occasionally gracelessly ... The less daring stories get lost in the mix. Yet taken as a whole, the collection provides a fascinating series of permutations—different constructions made of the same raw materials. Storytelling is one of those essential elements ... Most of these stories bear such brutal ends. Yet, as brief as they are, they also tend to have more kinetic energy than emotional heft. Blasim loves a twist ending, which can be hit or miss.
The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories from Iraq by Hassan Blasim (Penguin Books, 196 pages) totters between relevancy to the current proliferation of writing in the U.S. on the Iraq War and the aesthetic autonomy of its surrealist bent ... While the anathematic qualities of Blasim’s prose are rendered anodyne in the English, the surrealist strands that commingle with a stylized violence preserve a type of rebellion ... Blasim embeds this parade of characters in several askew framing devices that call attention to their own way of structuring reality, questing the ways in which horror is presented, transcribed, transmitted ... In turning to an alienating aesthetic where tragedy is inflected with surrealism, Hassan Blasim spins tails about how we encounter, privilege, and mediate experiences of horror while interrogating the act of narrating.
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 ... 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 ... It is a slim but potent collection and will go a long way to making Blasim’s name in American literary circles ... 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.
Set against a backdrop of war, the tales in this body of fictional work are beset with depravity and devoid of happy endings. Death and decadence are the norm in Blasim’s Iraq, a land overshadowed by strife and conflict where everyone has an increasingly shocking story to tell ... The accounts reflect the violence the country has faced during the last few decades and the impact this has had on its populace. The characters are in such a rush to tell their stories that they don’t have time to deliver their accounts with poise and eloquence. This abrupt style might not be graceful, but it suits their tragedies which are riddled with obscenity and jarring developments. The grotesque imagery does make an impact, but its gratuitousness is also disturbing and distracting ... His characters are invariably damaged, and either suffering or causing others to suffer; their inability to escape the tragedies of their past continuously shadowing their present and often ensuring that they have no future ... if you have the ability to work past the crude, graphic content and strong language, and explore the writing’s depth, then you will probably find The Corpse Exhibition compelling.
Blasim’s stories grow stranger and more fractured as he chronicles life in Iraq, first under Saddam Hussein during the wars with Iran and Kuwait, then during the American occupation and the resulting influx of foreign jihadists from the Middle East and Iran ... The stories also grow more nuanced, as if Blasim, who has lived in Finland for 10 years, is slowly mastering the incendiary raw material of his work ... This is not to reduce Blasim to a mere chronicler of a terrible chapter in history — his writing would be as assured and striking if he were telling the tale of a domestic crisis or a middle-class coming-of-age story. His radical narrative techniques also owe much to such literary influences as Kafka, Borges, Dostoevsky, and Julio Cortázar ... infused with black comedy, inventive storytelling, arresting metaphors and images, and true compassion for the victims of Iraq and outrage at the perpetrators.
Blasim's fantasies are of a distinctly Arab cast, jinnis and devils at every turn ... In The Corpse Exhibition, the war is always present, explicitly or in metaphor. The war is an oubliette from which there is no escape. The war is a dream that follows refugees to Europe, kills them after they have changed their names and left their old life behind. Blasim is an Iraqi Kafka with a touch of Edgar Allan Poe thrown in, and his pen spares no one who commits atrocities, Americans and Iraqis alike.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... Blasim sometimes blurs the line between the real and unreal ... One can only hope much of the menace is imagined, but Blasim himself might suggest that we’d be wagering hope against reason.
Expect nothing but the impressionistic here—magical realism, bloody allegories and macabre parables—elusive tales, each one a different window into modern Iraq’s tragic history ... In each piece, there’s no happy ending, but Blasim’s language is powerful, moving and deeply descriptive, thanks to Wright’s translation ... The most accessible story, and the most powerful fable about war and its consequences, is the last effort, 'The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes' ... All the stories share a complexity and depth that will appeal to readers of literary fiction, while some focus more plainly on evil’s abyss, much like biblical parables ... A collection of fractured-mirror reality stories for fans of Günter Grass, Gabriel García Márquez or Jorge Luis Borges.
The stories are brutal, vulgar, imaginative, and unerringly captivating ... Cars explode, women and boys are beaten and raped, bodies are inhabited by spirits, refugees tell lies, yet none of the horror is gratuitous; every story ends with a shock, and none of them falter. A searing, original portrait of Iraq and the universal fallout of war.