REVIEW: The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim

by Kyle Coma-Thompson

War is good for literature, but bad for trees, and bad for everyone else involved; except, one would assume, and as evidenced by all the books published about the invasion and occupation of Iraq, readers. For the larger portion of two two-term U.S. presidencies, works of punditry, history, political analysis, personal testimony and, with increasing frequency, fiction, have been published in English, the official language of the Occupation. The addition of Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition to this body of work could easily get lost in the mix, if not for one important exception: it was written in, then translated out of the language of the Occupied.

Culled from a pair of books originally published in Britain by Comma Press, 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.

If there’s a Ballardian ring to the collection’s title, it’s appropriate, but not wholly accurate. 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.

In the title story, a faceless narrator coaches a trainee on the proper tactics for carrying out aesthetically pleasing assassinations. Imprecise, messy acts of terrorism are frowned upon. Any display of corpses throughout a city must be achieved purposefully, with subtlety, elegance. His prize example? A woman breastfeeding her child, placed beneath a palm tree in the central divider of a busy street, both dead but arranged to conform to some passing simulacrum of life. Subtlety for Blasim, however, is not a priority. In an emblematic welcoming gesture toward any reader who may be curious enough to pick up his book, the story ends with the trainee taking a knife to the stomach.

“The Hole” describes a man’s encounter with a cannibalistic jinni. In “A Thousand and One Knives”, a paraplegic endowed with a magical ability to make knives disappear is detained by terrorists and punished in a way only they would see fit: crucifying him against a wall, they use his arms for target practice. What’s most important here? The violence portrayed isn’t fun, nor is it employed for purposes of moral instruction. It’s repellent, a zero sum, charmless.

Not instructional, except, perhaps, in one instance. In “The Killer and The Compass”, a boy follows his delinquent brother on his neighborhood rounds to fleece and terrorize the locals. The brother’s boldness and blunt will to power are a source of fear and admiration, even to his victims. “It’s today that matters,” he says, “and whether you can see the fear in people’s eyes. People who are frightened will give you everything.” The story recounts, among other things, his betrayal by a local barber and public execution by the police, but ends with a different order of murder. After forcing the boy to watch the burial of an anonymous, perhaps innocent man, alive, he pats him on the head, explains, “Now you’re god.” From the collection’s consistent standpoint of ugly, vigilant humor, this amounts to a fine moral lesson. Variations on this theme are touched on with more nuance and perspicacity elsewhere in Exhibition’s strongest stories, “An Army Newspaper”, “The Composer”, and “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes”. In these, exile, failure of conscience, and survivor’s guilt are depicted eye-level with vanity and human weakness.

Czeslaw Milosz once described Tadeusz Borowski, author of the Holocaust story cycle This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, as an ethical nihilist. “…I do not mean that he is amoral. On the contrary, his nihilism results from an ethical position, from disappointed love of the world and humanity.” The same could be said of Blasim. It is this very quality which separates the work of someone like Milosz from either Borowski or Blasim; 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. Kill the easy moral and its attendant pathos. The resulting corpses will more closely resemble what you’re grieving.

The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq

by Hassan Blasim

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