This may not seem that significant but that’s about a third of my literate life.
I just stopped reading novels once I got into college as non-fiction is so good and it just seemed more amazing if what I was reading was actually real. This is partially influence by the fact that I studied history and also that I read Malcolm X’s autobiography which is just mindblowing. A real you-couldn’t-make-this-shit-up kinda read.
But then a random series of events, and couple of days later, and I get a copy of Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Madman of Freedom Square’ through the post (Thanks Ra from the local publishers Comma Press!). Firstly, its a perfectly formed 93 pages. Secondly, its divided into 11 chapters each of which is about 5 pages long. Thirdly, I read it all and love it!! I am even writing a blog on it so more people will (hopefully) buy it and read it too.
Madman of Freedom Square is Blasim’s first book and his short stories are an unflinching look at the thick claustrophobia of war, insanity, hilarious surrealism, love, revenge and the breakdown of an entire society that has stopped trying to make sense of what is happening. It’s like an LSD trip through hell and back, none of it makes sense and none of it is supposed to.
One story which illustrates this is about Khaled al-Hamrani, a writer whose work focuses entirely on his local marketplace. He starts to have reoccurring dreams about a specific sequence of numbers and becomes obsessed about finding out what they mean for him. Death? Success? Change?
By the end you realise that they mean nothing but the writer can’t shake the feeling that something bad is about to happen. As he says “I don’t believe that when we die at night we come back every morning as we were…”
Blasim’s strongest stories, however, centre around the refugee experience. Like a man who whole-heartedly embraces becomes Dutch but his dreams bring harsh, unwanted reminders of his past and won’t let him be. Another touching story is of a young man, Ali, who escapes from Iraq along with his mother- in his bagpack.
Personally, the most haunting story is about a journalist for an army newspaper who ‘doctors’ stories to glorify the war. One day he is sent a story written so beautifully, with such talent that he can’t believe his luck- especially when the soldiers dies. He publishes just one of the five he is sent and instantly becomes famous, admired even. But then he receives another even better story, by the dead soldier, then another and another, and they don’t stop coming…in their thousands.
Many of the stories are like Khaled’s and Ali’s. They are simple, they plot is not the point, but they are so beautifully haunting. A single line makes you stop reading, twisting everything you previously read and drops you into a quiet and dull panic. They can be so gruesome, harsh and bitter but they are not trying to shock you. They are just trying to be honest. As Blasim writes “the dead are usually honest, even the bastards among them.”