Translating Horror: Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq’

The Corpse Exhibition To translate may be “to turn from one language into another.” But there is another meaning—to “remove from one place to another”—the underlying current being that the felicitous translation is not merely one of technical and semantic moves. Translation, as Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” purports as much as lampoons, is an act of rewriting for a culture with a wholly different epistemic, lexical, and historical foundation. Those things that revolve around and jut forth through the translated text— from editorial interjections and the frameworks of the material book to a culture’s sensibilities and history—render the text as a protean force shifting among its many allegiances.

Yet at the root of every translation is an awareness of inherent impossibility, a situation where something like Pound’s logopeiea (“the dance of intellect among words”) stops when one flits outside an author’s aesthetic realm. Faced with the buttressing sentences of Raymond Roussel’s story “Parmi les Noir”—“Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard…” (The white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table), “Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard…” (The white man’s letters on the hordes of the old plunderer)—even the most inventive translator could only restate the French with an underlining gloss explaining the movement between “billard” and “pillard.” Aesthetic recalcitrance is so firmly rooted in the original text that a translated version does not give itself up to the individually, historically, and lexically formed subjectivity of any new context.

To construct a workable relation between a text’s relevance to contemporary culture and the intractable alienation of the original’s aesthetic and historical-cultural context is exactly the challenge Edward Said identifies in his essay “Globalizing Literary Study”: “I myself have no doubt…that an autonomous aesthetic realm exists, yet how it exists in relation to history, politics, social structures, and the like, is really difficult to specify.”

Enclosed in a lithe black binding indicative of its macabre stories, The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories from Iraq by Hassan Blasim (Penguin Books, 196 pages) totters between relevancy to the current proliferation of writing in the U.S. on the Iraq War and the aesthetic autonomy of its surrealist bent. Culled from the two award-winning collections published in the U.K. and translated by Jonathan Wright, a longtime Reuters Middle East correspondent and lauded translator of Arabic fiction and political writings (Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel, Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi, Alaa Al-Aswany’s On the State of Egypt: What Caused the Revolution), the book, if not wholly new in content, is something of a grand fête for Blasim as he enters the pristine markets of American booksellers. Penguin’s paratextual framing of the book—the back cover blurbs, “This blistering debut by ‘perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive’ (The Guardian) is the first major literary work about the Iraq War from an Iraqi perspective. Showing us the war as we have never seen it before…”—casts Blasim as a voice lighting upon “the other side” of the Iraq War. It is a bold pronouncement considering Americans barely appear in these stories and war, when it does appear, stalks in the background.

Blasim has been more acrimoniously received in the Middle East where he lived until escaping to Finland. Harangued as heretical or as politically unpalatable, Blasim’s art (he is a film director and poet, as well) has been blocked from traditional publication in the Arab world by injunction and censorship and therefore has existed in the margins. In Lebanon, Blasim’s stories were heavily redacted for a 2012 publication, and in Jordan banned outright. Undeterred and perhaps bolstered by intransigent opposition, Blasim has championed subversive art, employing a pseudonym to direct a film in Kurdistan, where he was evading Saddam Hussein’s secret police, to serving as co-editor for, an online publication of exemplarily Arabic fiction where many of his stories first appeared and have reached wide audiences.

With phrases that reflect the horror of Iraq’s violence and at times give way to a type of nihilistic will-to-power—such as in the line from “The Killers and the Compass,” “You have to learn how to make yourself God in this world, so that people lick your ass while you shit down their throats”—Blasim positions his art as affront and can hardly be dismayed that he has been met with displeasure by the dominant political forces of the Middle East. Rather, his art seems to gather cogency from its subversive positioning. Indeed, in an interview with The New Statesman, Blasim elucidates his polemical stance against the sanctity of fusha, or Quranic Arabic, a feature which, not to impugn its quality and veracity, is elided in Jonathan Wright’s translation:

“… the secret to breathing new life into Arabic lies not just in using the colloquial, but also in standing up to the tedious and nauseating refrain about the beauty and sanctity of the Arabic language because it is the language of the Quran and of the great tradition of Arabic poetry. Very well, put the language of the Quran and of old poetry in the museum. But we need to express the disaster of our lives in the Arab world in a language that is bold, up-to-date and not afraid of grammar or of Arabic’s sanctity.”

While the anathematic qualities of Blasim’s prose are rendered anodyne in the English, the surrealist strands that commingle with a stylized violence preserve a type of rebellion. Blasim’s stories are peopled by the dead who’ve come back to tell their tales to catcalls and derision, jinnis who feast upon dead Russian flesh, refugees and men who become unwilling terrorists in bathroom stalls, and prophets and madmen. Blasim embeds this parade of characters in several askew framing devices that call attention to their own way of structuring reality, questing the ways in which horror is presented, transcribed, transmitted.

In “The Corpse Exhibition,” the collection’s title story, Blasim plunges his reader into the bureaucratic world of a group of occult assassins who display their victim’s corpses as if they are the installation works of Bansky: disemboweled organs painted in greens, blues, and yellows and hung from invisible threads, the corpse of a child seated in a restaurant with “the eyes of the other family members on the table served in bowls of blood, like soup,” a naked woman who looks to be alive and breast feeding a child under a dead palm tree in the city center. That the story is narrated by an anonymous apprentice assassin, who in the story’s two bracketing sentences of present action (“Before taking out his knife he said,” and “Then he thrust the knife into my stomach and said, ‘You’re shaking’”) transcribes his own murder, proffers the violence inherent in transmitting these stories as art.

These themes find recurrence in several of the collection’s notable pieces. In “The Song of the Goats” (a nod to Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy with its focus on the satyr, self-affirming nihilism, and the etymology of tragedy as from tragōidos itself a combination tragos, “goat,” and aoidos, “singer”), Blasim stages a chorus of voices over the loudspeaker in a radio station’s anteroom. While crowding against other traumatized Iraqis who are waiting to compete to see who can tell the most horrific anecdote, the narrator is confounded by the prosaic tale played over a loudspeaker, one in which a boy recounts how he is haunted by the memory of pushing his brother into a septic tank where he drowned (perhaps a darkly comic play on Nietzsche’s abyss). In “An Army Newspaper,” the spirit of a literary editor recounts how he had to build an incinerator to burn the reams of manuscripts he received daily from a dead soldier whose story he published as his own to international acclaim. Unable to escape the stories, he kills himself.

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories from Iraq, like its author, is a refugee struggling to reconcile life in the diaspora with the memory and nightmare of Iraq’s more than fifty years of violence. In turning to an alienating aesthetic where tragedy is inflected with surrealism, Hassan Blasim spins tails about how we encounter, privilege, and mediate experiences of horror while interrogating the act of narrating. The collection’s place, as well as the place of Iraq’s many stories to be seized upon by an international audience in a globalized world, is kindred with the narrator in “The Reality and the Record,” in which a traumatized man tries to tell the right story to secure asylum at a refugee center in Sweden. His tale recounts successive kidnappings by different Iraqi groups, each of which forces him to take on a different persona in a videotaped confession. These confessions are broadcast by major satellite stations around the world where Western media accept them as true, and the asylum seeker becomes a coveted asset traded among groups. At one point in his tale, the refugee diverges from his farcical account and begins talking of his philosophy of life before catching himself and self-censoring: “What I’m saying has nothing to do with my asylum request.” For after all, he realizes that “What matters to you is the horror.” Indeed, Blasim’s collection in translation, a heady indictment, gives and yet refuses to give the type of narrative a Western audience approves.

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