Hassan Blasim Wins 2014 International Foreign Fiction Prize for ‘The Iraqi Christ’

For the first time, England’s International Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) has gone to a book translated from the Arabic: Hassan Blasim’s The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright.

blasim-book1The Iraqi short-story writer’s win comes as a surprise, one that has certainly delighted Ra Page, Blasim’s English-language publisher.

This is not just the first time an Arabic-language author has won the prize, but also the first time a short-story collection has taken it. The win comes, apparently after some disagreement among the committee, but judge Boyd Tonkin said at this evening’s announcement, they “displayed real integrity.”

Blasim’s collection was chosen above others on a shortlist of six that included Karl Ove Knausgård’s globally acclaimed A Man in Love, thought to be the frontrunner. Among the four other titles in contention, two were from Japan: Yoko Ogawa’s short-story collection Revenge and Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. One was from Germany, Birgit Vanderbeke’s renowned novella The Mussel Feast. Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter was translated from the French.

The Mussel Feast also got a “special mention” from the judges.

The Iraqi Christ is Blasim’s second short-story collection. His stronger first collection, Madman of Freedom Square, also translated by Wright, was longlisted — but not shortlisted — for the IFFP in 2010.

This year, Blasim has seem tremendous acclaim in English. His collection The Corpse Exhibition was released in the US by Penguin and was widely reviewed in the US press, generally positively. Interviews have popped up across English-language media.

When the IFFP’s 2014 longlist was released, Judge Boyd Tonkin, who writes for The Independent and is the only IFFP judge who stays the same year after year, commented on Blasim’s collection:

“Strung between reportage, memoir and dark fantasy, these linked stories present Iraq, post-Saddam and post-invasion, as a surrealist inferno. Bizarre horrors become everyday events. Outlandish tragedies punctuate ordinary life. Blasim’s wild imagination, pitch-black comedy and fierce compassion, all captured by Jonathan Wright’s pacy, pugnacious translation, keep nihilism at bay.”

Blasim in London today. From Facebook.
Blasim in London today. From Facebook.

Blasim’s stories have been translated into a number of languages, and his work has been embraced in many of them. But not in Arabic. It was a struggle for Blasim to get his short-story collection printed — publication of the original Arabic came after the English translation and then with a number of redactions. The collection is banned in Jordan and perhaps elsewhere.

When the first collection of Blasim’s stories did come out in Arabic, they did not receive the critical acclaim they have in English. A review in Al-Akhbar, for instance, comments on the lack of beauty in the sentences. Others have commented on an absence of innovative language or style.

Although some critics suggest that Jonathan Wright has beautified Blasim’s stories in English, the appeal of the stories is not in the style, but in the raw sharpness of the individual scenes, the freshnses of them, how they pop out beyond expectations and drag the reader into a new place.  Although the collections have been uneven, there have been amazing, startling moments within.

In any case, it isn’t unprecedented for an author to be uninterested in sentence-creation — the great Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño  was not — and Blasim has said that “beautiful” language is not his focus. He isn’t interested in preserving “the beaty of the Arabic language.” From a 2012 talk in London:

“During the civil war in Iraq, people were still talking about the beauty and sacredness of Arabic as a language. I reject writers who concentrate on the beauty of the language rather than the violence of events. I know it’s a rich language but for a long time the one spoken in the street has been different – one day I want to write just in colloquial. I like film because I can just use normal language. If you use fus7a (Modern Standard Arabic) you’re scared of the language all the time. When you write in fus7a you are like something from history, how can you write like Ibn Arabi about car bombs?”

Reviews of Blasim’s work in the Arab press have not been uniform. Youssef Rakha, for instance, celebrates Blasim’s stories. But the most damning critique of Blasim’s stories — as evidence for why they have achieved so much more acclaim in the West than in the original — is that the stories “exoticize” atrocity, torture, and murder.

A Comma Press photo of Blasim and Wright speaking at the awards ceremony.
A Comma Press photo of Blasim and Wright speaking at the awards ceremony.

In re-reading the stories, it’s hard to see violence as glamorized, although it is certainly ubiquitous, and used as a narrative tool. The opening story, “The Song of the Goats,” interrogates what it means for an Iraqi to tell his or her story.

The premise of “The Song of the Goats” is that an Iraqi radio station has set up a contest to find three of the “best” stories, and that people — including the narrator — crowd into the station in order to tell their heart-breaking tales. “More than once an argument broke out because of the crush.”

We’re told that the radio management plays a sample story about a young woman whose husband was kidnapped by an Islamist group. After the story, chaos breaks out. An old woman “about ninety” waves her hand in derision and complains, “That’s a story? If I told my story to a rock, it would break its heart.”

A radio man in a “smart suit” tries to lecture the crowd about what a story should be, saying that “the best stories did not mean the most frightening or the saddest,” but the crowd is having none of it. The narrator notes that, “A man the size of an elephant whispered into my ear, ‘It’s bullshit what the bullshitter says. A story’s a story, whether it’s beautiful or bullshit.'”

Blasim seems to believe in the sheer power of the storytelling act, saying more than once that: “If you put a camera in the street in the West people walk by, but if you put a camera in the street in Baghdad everyone wants to tell their story.” And he has consistently not listened to the man in the smart suit, going his own way in putting together stories that the Al Akhbar review complains display the aesthetics of “shock and awe.”

Perhaps so. But sometimes, when the stories land, they really hit their mark.

Background on the award:

Judges before the event. From @Booktrust.
Judges before the event. From @Booktrust.

The IFFP judges this year were Alev Adil, Natalie Haynes, Nadifa Mohamed, Boyd Tonkin, and Shaun Whiteside. The Prize honors “the best work of fiction by a living author, which has been translated into English from any other language and published in the United Kingdom.” The IFFP gives the winning author and translator equal status, and each receives £5,000.

The award was first given in 1990 to Orhan Pamuk and translator Victoria Holbrook for The White Castle and ran until 1995. It was revived in 2000 with the support of Arts Council England, and has since gone to W G Sebald and Anthea Bell, Per Olov Enquist and Tiina Nunnally, and Gerbrand Bakker and David Colmer, among others.

One Arabic work has been previously shortlisted — Hanan al-Shaykh’s Only in London. Elias Khoury’s towering Yalo made the longlist in 2010, and Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred made the longlist in 2013. But Khoury’s celebrated Gate of the Sun, for instance, went unrecognized by the IFFP judges.

This year’s longlist included 15 books from 10 languages. Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer, trans. the author, was also on the 2014 longlist.

From The Independent:

Iraq’s ‘Irvine Welsh’ wins the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Iraqi Christ