The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim

corpseexhibitonThis book is grotesque to point of being difficult to read. It’s disturbing. The tone fits the theme it explores — unending war, which visited Iraq on and off for the past thirtyish years.

The title story is literally the title. A man is talking to You, explaining his organization, how it murders people and artfully displays their corpses. He’s a stickler for creative sobriquets and matching artwork. Butchering a man and throwing his severed body parts in the street just doesn’t cut it. Get creative. This is art.The prose doesn’t shy from tight description of the kills and presentation. It’s black humor on top of black horror. It imagines a world so upset by war, that a corpse exhibition is completely reasonable. This is only the beginning.

What follows is a murder, rape, absence of hope, with occasional humor. It reminds me of Roberto Bolano’s horrific depiction of crime in Juarez in 2666. But unlike Bolano’s goal of desensitizing us to violence, Blasim is continuously shocking, each new abuse like a stab to the gut. The characters behave otherwise. When one protagonist decries his job of cleaning up oil spills, he lists the things he has to clean up from explosions and leaves ‘body parts’ for the end, almost as an afterthought. He’s used to it.

The violence is rarely blamed on invasions or dictators. It permeates the world the characters live in, is part of the air and dirt. No one questions it: it just is. It exists as a sort of mania that drives people to madness, convinces them they are feeling phantom pain.

Magic realism plays heavily in several of the stories. A man running for his life falls into a hole and finds himself unstuck in time, accompanied by a flesh eating jinn. In the closest things to a hopeful story, some unrelated people discover they share the ability to make knives disappear.  

A tough read.

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