By M Lynx Qualey
And I blinked and said . . . wait, who?
Part of a reviewer’s job is to bring new books into sudden focus. A reviewer must make a selection from the hazy and ever-shifting TBR piles that surround us and narrow down our attention to just one thing. They must make us care about one writer, one group of writers, or even just one book: how good it was, how bad it was, how strange it was, or how it was all those things at once. The reviewer must do all this while being honest, fair-minded, and — in the best of times — funny.
Contemporary forms of communication mean that many of us can see the edges of great writing going on in all sorts of languages over which we have no mastery. We can guess there are a great many fantastic writers who are utterly unknown to us. We rely on translators, but also on critics and reviewers to bring us news from other languages.
English-language literature is itself also vast, penned in many different countries. In such a big language, there are a handful of writers who we might assume form a shared cultural landscape. For Anglophones, I would hazard many of us have heard of Walt Whitman, Toni Morrison, and Shakespeare. For Arabophones, I’d hazard a shared background in Nizar Qabbani, Naguib Mahfouz, and Mutanabbi.
But the literary landscape is so wide, and the field of human relationship so relatively narrow, that most of our vistas are not overlapping. I don’t know all of your must-read classics, and you don’t know mine. I would hate to compare every new writer to how far they are from Shakespeare — although Hassan Blasim’s God99 does have a funny passage about the productions of Shakespeare’s plays in Iraq.
But: Who is Hassan Blasim? Why, for better or for worse, should you be interested in his good, bad, and strange book God99?
You could be interested simply because he and translator Jonathan Wright won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for their short-story collection The Iraqi Christ, a prize for which they had previously been longlisted. Wright is also the translator of God99, and together they are a known quantity. As a reviewer, I am not above leaning on literary prizes to do some of my work.
But instead of that sort of shorthand, the Guardian review of God99 — which, otherwise, makes several interesting observations — gives us a comparison that is both oddly specific and also strangely unhelpful: Blasim is “Iraq’s Irvine Welsh.” Yes, yes, Irvine Welsh is a name I should instantly recognize. But to be honest, I had forgotten why. Irvine, my brain said. Irvine, California? Worse, my brain had linked the name “Irvine Welsh” to novels and screenplays by the American writer Peter Hedges.
As soon as I googled, I saw mention of Trainspotting, and a few things clicked into place. (Oh!) But, as soon as they clicked, I began to struggle with the comparison all over again. (Oh?) Was it because they both used naughty language? Or was there something deeper that I was missing? The review notes, “Described as Iraq’s Irvine Welsh, Blasim avoids writing in classical Arabic[.]” And it is true that, in so far as I know, Welsh eschews all formal Arabic. On the other hand, Blasim does not.
So never mind.
This is not to suggest either the review or all such comparisons are bad. I love when books are put in constellations with other books, and I think it helps illuminate aspects we might otherwise have missed. Rania Said recently wrote about teaching Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration of the North followed by Naguib Mahfouz’s The Beggar, and my ears pricked with delight.
But comparing author to author is a trickier business, and it also seems odd that Blasim is the “Iraqi” Irvine Welsh. I am not sure whether Blasim now has Finnish citizenship, but, in any case, what he’s writing is hardly a gritty portrait of Baghdadi youth, but rather a portrait of various adult migrant experiences and a pointed criticism of (and sometimes love letter to) Europe. His characters are not solely Iraqis but a range of Iraqis, Syrians, Moroccans, and also Finns whose stories are woven through the collection.
In response to the “Iraqi Irvine Welsh” thread, Anne-Lise Remacle noted that when Blasim “came to Bozar two years ago, he was introduced as a ‘Iraqi Kafka with a touch of Edgar Allan Poe’.”
Kafka is another member our presumed-to-be-shared cultural landscape. (And no, I didn’t have to google Kafka.) Even those who have not read Kafka’s books might guess that a Kafkaesque novel is disorienting or illogical, surreal or nightmarish. Many writers have borne the comparison: James Kelman is apparently the Scottish Kafka, Samuel Beckett has been called the Irish Kafka, Michael Cisco is the American Kafka, and David Cronenberg the Canadian Kafka.
Edgar Allen Poe is apparently less-compared. I could not find, via google, a single Scottish Edgar Allan Poe. But I can guess what is meant: gothic, gloomy, macabre.
Really, you could compare Blasim to just about anyone, if you made the case for it. Yet if these writer-to-writer comparisons are left as though they speak for themselves, they become a strange sort of math problem for the reader: (Irvine Welsh + Franz Kafka + Edgar Allan Poe) * Iraq =[Hassan Blasim]. Perhaps I am just bad at algebra, but I find myself stuck.
And while I never need to see another “the Iraqi Maya Angelou” or “the Syrian Dan Brown,” I don’t mean we should compare Blasim only to himself, as though he sprang straight from Zeus’s head fully formed. However, I would note that the structure of God99 is Blasimesque in its abrupt stops and starts, its tonal shifts, and its defiance of causal logic. In the way it refuses to link one thing to the next, one could call it anti-Sheherazadian.
And Blasim has seen far worse juxtapositions. When his translated short-story collection The Corpse Exhibition (tr. Wright) arrived in the US in 2014, Blasim was invited to the country for several book events.
For the most part, Blasim didn’t appear in events with other exilic authors, or other filmmaker-writers, or others whose writing is choppy or surreal. Instead — as has happened to other Afghani and Iraqi writers in the US — he was put on stage with a US military veteran. In these public conversations, Blasim’s work was promoted, somehow, as the “Iraqi version” of Phil Klay’s, even though it’s hard to see how their works are resonant in tone, style, or artistic aim. And while they both spent time in Iraq, one arrived as part of an occupying military force while the other fled the war in 2004.
If I was going to put work in a constellation with God99, I am not sure what I would choose, outside of Blasim’s own short stories. I haven’t started my review of Blasim’s baggy debut novel. But perhaps I might contrast it with Hoda Barakat’s tightly controlled novella The Night Post, appearing soon in Marilyn Booth’s translation. Perhaps I could talk about it alongside other recent autobiographical fiction set in cold Scandinavia, such as the My Struggle books by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Although I suppose I would have to read the Knausgaard first.
Anne-Lise Remacle went on to note that she’d had the opportunity to interview Blasim, and that he said “really clearly,” that some people in the West “are quite surprised if we don’t know Tom Waits but aren’t able to mention only one Arab musician or only one Japanese painter.’ And he concluded, ‘We are also the world.’”
A particular Western canon is often centered, for us readers and reviewers to know and compare against, and everything else must be the compare-ee.
For Blasim’s part, he said he was pleased enough, since he’d learned about a new author, “Irvine Welsh.” Previously, he said, his work had been compared to Roberto Bolaño, who he hadn’t known. Now, he said, he’s read most of Bolaño’s books.
For myself, I cannot name even one Japanese painter. And I googled Tom Waits, just in case I had mixed him up with Tom Petty.