Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf

Mazen Maarouf’s collection deftly tells the story of a world that’s been knocked on its head

Book Review by Kirstyn Smith | 08 Jan 2019
  • Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf
Book title: Jokes for the Gunmen
Author: Mazen Maarouf

Through bewilderment, violence and desperate irony, Mazen Maarouf’s collection of stories portray war-torn Beirut as a place stuck between fantasy and reality.

Although missing limbs, deafness and glass eyes abound, Maarouf’s stories are so involving it’s often hard to remember that the book is set during combat. This is perhaps because many are told from a child’s naive point of view: Matador is a Saki-esque funny-but-sad whirl of confusion, life and death in which the young protagonist’s uncle fails as a matador in life before not even being able to die correctly. In Cinema, a theatre bombing leaves a child alone with a lost, wandering cow as his only gateway between reality and fiction.

Omnipresent is the concept of jokes as a form of currency, both social and actual. In one tale, soldiers guarding a school can be bribed with jokes; in another a man who has forgotten how to smile accidentally kills someone through humour. Maarouf’s use of surreality is as sharp as shrapnel: the real horrors of a country in conflict are juxtaposed with hazy dream-nightmares to highlight the utter unreality war sprinkles across everyday life, love and work.

In every story in Jokes for the Gunmen, Maarouf displays skill in distorting the lines between life and death, reality and dreams. The result is a collection that deftly tells the crucial story of a world that’s been knocked on its head.

Portobello Books, out now, £10.99