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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The Creator by Mynona

thecreatorOK, I’m done. I will no longer be suckered into buying unheralded classics from various points in the 20th century that happened to be suffering in obscurity until, just now, a small press managed the painstaking task of reviving it and translating it into english.

The inside flap of The Creator says

Mentioned in his day in the same breath as Kafka, Mynona, aka Salomo Friedlaender was a–

Let’s stop here for a second with this wonderfully ambiguous sentence. Mentioned in the same breath as Kafka? I’m sure such breaths were:

Salomo Friedlaender and Franz Kafka are both writers.

or

Salomo Friedlaender is not nearly as good a writer as Franz Kafka.

Anyway, on with the blurb:

Mynona, aka Salomo Friedlaender was a perfectly functioning split personality: a serious philosopher by day and a literary absurdist by night.

A serious 19th century German philosopher who wrote satirical fantasy tales by night? Sounds fun! But this Jekyll &Hyde description is pure fraud. The Creator is barely fiction — it’s just a short tale to promote the philosophy of a Kant disciple named Ernst Marcus. To wit, here’s a monologue from one of the professor characters in the story:

Consider the work of the Kantian Ernst Marcus! This estimable epistemological theorist proves with convincing acuity that sensory perception does not only ensue as a consequence of the inward-directed affect of external objects on our brain, but also emanates with equal force from the brain outward toward those objects. An ethereal sensory stream surges from our body, our brain, and in particular, from our optical nerve center, outward into the world around us, all the way to the Sun, thus also to the reflected Sun in the mirror.

So our brains are beaming sensory perception back at the sun. Okay. This could be an interesting philosophy to explore in a novella. But here it is not.

The actual plot has a solitary man meet a much younger woman and start dreaming of each other and this turns out to involve some mad-scientist-like old man (the woman’s uncle/father) who espouses the above philosophy, and has a magic mirror ready to demonstrate it (poorly). It’s boring, not particularly well written, and without charm. Then the story repeats. The Creator wraps up and there’s a second short story following it that tells almost exactly the same story. Younger woman, misunderstood man, old man with a magic mirror. Kant/Ernst Marcus monologue. Both stories have the exact same conclusion — man and woman merge into some pure non-sexual angelic being. It’s baffling.

Fortunes of France: The Brethren by Robert Merle

brethrenWritten in 1977 and supposedly an unheralded french classic, this is the first of a 13 volume saga finally being translated into english. It’s about two soldiers, both named Jean, sworn brothers-maybe-lovers, who return from war to establish lands, build wealth, be fruitful and multiply. One of the Jean’s sons, Pierre, narrates his family’s life from some time in the future. It’s a tumultuous life indeed as the Jeans are newly reformed protestants amidst the French Wars of Religion. A war and period I knew nothing about prior to this book. But I learned plenty.

Because, you see, the narrator, the characters themselves often speak like textbooks:

(character recounting a battle that happened offscreen)

He reinforced the gates of the citadel with four cannon brought from the streets of the city, and launched numerous attacks on our position but couldn’t manage to dislodge us. When dawn brought low tide, Wentworth, realizing he’d lost half his troops, decided to surrender. At his request, Guise granted all of the inhabitants of the city safe conduct, just as Edward III had done for the French two centuries earlier, when he had taken the city.

Or try this (narration)

On 2nd August, a month after the Bayonne meetings, the principal Protestant lords of the Sarlat region, still greatly alarmed, met at Mespech. Armand de Gontaut Saint-Genies, Foucad de Saint-Astier, Geoffroy de Baynac, Jean de Foucauld and Geoffroy de Caumont arrived separately, under the cover of darkness and in the greatest secrecy.

The worst part is that the history lessons are actually the most interesting part of this book. The characters are two dimensional; they are only known by a handful of unchanging traits. The dumb superstitious servant woman. The lugubrious* man who never speaks except to impart dismal wisdom. The haughty, cowardly older brother. The blessed idiot. The guy with a moustache. The Jeans actually pick up so many random passerby (reminding me of recruiting random people in role playing games) that it becomes difficult to tell them apart, even with their singular attributes.

There’s not much plot, per se. The characters are largely swept along by history, generally profiting from the ills affecting their countryman. As I mentioned, the history itself is interesting. France was brutally at its own throat as the protestants and catholics tortured, murdered, and dispossessed each other. The actual reasoning that people converted to the ‘reformed religion’ — corruption of the church, nobles buying their way into heaven, excessive pomp that missed the point — and why the catholics tried to hold on, not least of all due to the celebratory nature of feast days and the way the worship of saints endured as a stand-in for pagan tradition is fascinating. They seem mostly indistinguishable to outsiders nowadays.

But if I wanted to read a history book, I would have done so. And surely received a better account.

Also, an aspect of this book important to note: the author is obsessed with breasts. They are described in detail in virtually any scene that involves a woman. They might be barely concealed by rags or about to fall out at any moment. There are tense action scenes with bizarre interludes where Merle deems a status-check on a woman’s breasts absolutely necessary. Moreover, there’s an excessive and honestly hilarious focus on breast feeding.

And this said, she drew out from her blouse with a firm hand and an easy gesture first her right and then her left breast, both so round and large and white that a great silence fell over the room so that all you could hear was the tiniest crackle of the fire and the gluttonous suckling of the two hungries.

I cannot stop cracking up at this passage. Just this whole room descending into silence, mouths agape. When I was mentioning the character types above, I failed to name the wetnurse, as her only function in the narrative is breastfeeding. There’s actually another paragraph or two of description that follows that quote. And this is not the only time this happens. Over and over, with multiple characters. Someone’s got a fetish.

*I have never seen this word used so much in one book in my life. It’s in every sentence that involves this guy.

The Metamorphosis and Other Stories

metamorpmosisA MAN TURNS INTO A BUG. Franz Kafka is known for this. And one hundred years later, his work remains inimitable. Bizarre, grotesque, monotonous, true. Gregor Samsa wakes up as a cockroach and this is remarkable to everyone but his own self, because as the overworked and under-appreciated breadwinner of his family, he already lives like one. His initial trials involve trying to get out of bed (he’s stuck on his back carapace and hasn’t managed to control his multitude of tiny fluttering legs yet) and trying to open doors. What follows, as his family begins to ostracize him, is a black humor-laced* depiction of how some families treat the terminally ill among them.

The stories maintain a striking relevance. The Penal Colony is a story about the failed maintenance of the once great ‘apparatus’, an impossible steampunk device that writes a victim’s crimes in their own skin until they run out of blood and it (the apparatus) tosses them into a bottomless desert pit. It is a political tale of capital punishment and changing opinions tied to changing regimes. It could have been written today, which is sort of depressing in its resonance.

There’s fragments and meditations. Short recursive pieces where characters sunk in pathos consider and reconsider their life and emotions mark Kafka as a very direct antecedent to David Foster Wallace’s short fiction. There’s dark fairy tales and sardonic observations of social interaction and weird, coincidence laden tales of ship crews where no one acts or responds as they should. Why does that kid love the awkward crewman (‘the stoker’) like a father after knowing him for five minutes, why??

But yes, more Kafka. I intend read his entire oeuvre, which isn’t terribly long, but I’d do the same if it were much longer.

*I never realized the horror-trope of a man covering his mouth with his hands and slowly backpedaling away had its roots in Kafka. I do now, thanks to Gregor’s jerk boss coming to the Samsa house to lecture him on the requirements of showing up to work before he opens the door and sees roach-Gregor and reacts accordingly.