An Excess of Stories

From the Egypt Independent:

Iraqi-ChristsmIn Hassan Blasim’s “The Song of the Goats,” hundreds of Iraqis “were waiting in queues to tell their stories. The police intervened to marshal the crowd, and the main street opposite the radio station was closed to traffic.”

“The Song of Goats” opens Blasim’s new collection, “The Iraqi Christ” (2013). It is not the only piece in which Iraqis are eager to tell their stories. It is a theme that is prevalent not just in Blasim’s work, but elsewhere in contemporary Iraqi fiction — each Iraqi now has something to tell, and many are bursting to get their stories out. “The Iraqi Christ” is Blasim’s second collection, following on the heels of his “Madman of Freedom Square” (2010). His first collection, which was also translated by Jonathan Wright, was longlisted for the UK’s International Foreign Fiction award.

Blasim, who left Iraq in 2004 for Finland, has been a vocal and visible proponent of finding new ways to tell Iraqi stories. He helped found the website, which features dozens of Iraqi writers. He is also spearheading an “Iraq 2103” project along with the UK’s Comma Press. In the collection, Iraqi authors will share stories set 100 years after the start of the occupation. Blasim also works in film and theater, and has called for a “revolution against classical Arabic.”

Blasim’s stories are still written largely in classical Arabic, although he said in a UK appearance last December “that one day I want to write just in colloquial,” adding that, “When you write in fusha you are like something from history. How can you write like Ibn Arabi about car bombs?”

The most prevalent theme in Blasim’s new collection is not car bombs, but the nature of storytelling. In the opening work, “The Song of the Goats,” Iraqis gather outside a radio station, hoping to win a spot on a program called “Their Stories in Their Own Voices.” A number of stories will be chosen to run on the program, and the station’s listeners will choose the top three, with each winning a prize.

After the first batch of contestants is ushered into the building, the radio producers play a sample story for the waiting crowd. The story is told by a woman whose husband was tortured and decapitated and is certainly tragic. But no one in the studio is moved. Indeed, after the story concludes, “Everyone was talking at the same time, like a swarm of wasps.” A woman close to ninety mutters, “That’s a story!? If I told my story to a rock, it would break its heart.”

“The Song of the Goats” ends abruptly. We never hear the stories of the narrator, nor the others who have lined up to tell theirs — only the two official stories chosen by the radio station. We do not know if the others got to tell their stories, or who “wins.” Blasim’s short stories are often like this: They drag you into a surreal, rocky, emotionally difficult place, and then they leave you there, blinking, without resolution.

Most of Blasim’s stories are in the first person, told by a character who seems rushed to get the words out, to unburden himself. The characters hallucinate. Stories shift and turn back on themselves. The line between the real and the bizarre is frequently violated, kicked aside—as though the conflict is re-making the borders of reality.

The theme of Iraqis who cannot help but tell their stories is echoed in other Iraqi fictions, such as Muna Fadhil’s “Sandstorm.” In that story, civil servants, each of whom “would have seen at least one murder or bomb site within the past 24 hours,” compete to tell the most horrific story of the day. Keep reading on EI.