Calling Hassan Blasim's second short story collection a ‘tour de force’ seems tactless – a tour by the Allied Western armies, involving deadly force, was what brought his native country of Iraq to its knees the last time, after all. Blasim's fiction deals not just with the aftermath of war and struggle – the horrors that become commonplace in a culture which has seen its ruling elite routed, exiled or killed, and its citizens murdering each other daily in the streets – but also with historical detritus: decades of colonial rule, followed by years of oppressive dictatorship, bleeding into the chaos and civil war of the present day. Blasim does not mince his words, so neither shall we – Iraq is a fucked up place.
Blasim brings this chaos vividly to life, not through chest-beating, emotionally wrenching verité journalism, nor through the pejorative, rifle-sight perspective of invading soldiers. Rather he explores the dark, uncomfortable psychological territory within the minds and histories of ordinary Iraqis – all of whom are exquisitely realised literary creations, but who offer a verisimilitude of character which is unmatched in any other fiction about Iraq.
His tales are not ‘realist’ in a literary sense either – far from it. They are phantasmagorias involving djinni, sentient dogs, feral wolves trapped in city blocks, doomed soldiers with latent psychic talents. There are stories within stories, clever metafictional tricks which recall Kafka, JG Ballard and Paul Auster.
His work never flinches from gore, sex, violence, blasphemy or misery – nor do these tropes ever feel exploitative. The rich combination of pitch-black gallows humour and fantastical flights from reality are utterly compelling – more real than anything you have read before about Iraq. [Bram E. Gieben]