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The Madman of Freedom Square [Paperback]

Hassan Blasim
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 Aug 2009
From hostage-video makers in Baghdad, to human trafficking in the forests of Serbia, institutionalised paranoia in the Saddam years, to the nightmares of an exile trying to embrace a new life in Amsterdam... Blasim's stories present an uncompromising view of the West's relationship with Iraq, spanning over twenty years and taking in everything from the Iran-Iraq War through to the Occupation, as well as offering a haunting critique of the post-war refugee experience. Blending allegory with historical realism, and subverting readers expectations in an unflinching comedy of the macabre, these stories manage to be both phantasmagoric and shockingly real, light in touch yet steeped in personal nightmare. For all their despair and darkness, though, what lingers more than the haunting images of war, or the insanity of those who would benefit from it, is the spirit of defiance, the indefatigable courage of those few characters keeping faith with what remains of human intelligence. Together these stories represent the first major literary work about the war from an Iraqi perspective.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 98 pages
  • Publisher: Comma Press; 2nd edition edition (3 Aug 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1905583257
  • ISBN-13: 978-1905583256
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 12.4 x 19.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 204,039 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Review

'Perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive...' 'Crisp and shocking.... Too febrile and macabre to file under reportage, this cruel, funny and unsettling debut has hooks and twists that will lodge in any mind.' --The Guardian

'Blasim pitches everyday horror into something almost gothic... his taste for the surreal can be Gogol-like.' --The Independent

'The news machine has shifted its attention to Afghanistan, and Iraqis are being left to fend for themselves. Blasim's collection reminds us that anything could still happen there. Iraq's story must still be told, and we need Iraqi voices like Blasim's to tell it.' --Intelligent Life

About the Author

Hassan Blasim is a poet, filmmaker and short story writer. Born in Baghdad in 1973, he studied at the city's Academy of Cinematic Arts, where two of his films Gardenia (screenplay & director) and White Clay (screenplay) won the Academy's Festival Award for Best Work in their respective years. In 1998 he left Baghdad for Sulaymaniya (Iraqi Kurdistan), where he continued to make films, including the feature-length drama Wounded Camera, under the pseudonym Ouazad Osman, fearing for his family back in Baghdad under the Hussein dictatorship. In 2004, he moved to Finland, where he has since made numerous short films and documentaries for Finnish television. His stories have previously been published on www.iraqstory.com and his essays on cinema have featured in Cinema Booklets (Emirates Cultural Foundation). His first short story in English appeared in Madinah: City Stories from the Middle East (Comma 2008). This is his first book.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Paul Bowes TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
'The Madman of Freedom Square', a first book, is a collection of eleven brief short stories by the writer and film-maker Hassan Blasim, an Iraqi by birth and now resident of Finland. It appeared in English in 2009: the stories had for the most part previously appeared in Arabic online. The first story appeared in English in 2008 in Prospect magazine and in a previous collection from Comma, 'Madinah'.

Blasim's subject is Iraq and its people in the years of Saddam Hussain and the subsequent American Occupation. The extraordinary events of those years render straightforward story-telling inadequate. Blasim's response has been to create a style that draws on the traditional resources of myth, legend and the dream narrative as much as modern reportage, and that fuses an almost Gothic sensibility with a commitment to truth.

The result is deeply unsettling for optimists and believers in the inherent nobility of man. Under horrendous pressures from external violence and culturally-imposed strictures, individuals in these stories crack time and again, regressing according to temperament and circumstance in the face of an almost surreal reality into states of infantile cruelty, superstitious dread and madness.

For the western reader, there will be echoes of Kafka and Borges, but also of Poe, and of De Sade's unflinching gaze on human depravity. In sum, these stories are a powerful and quite unanticipated artistic response to unbearable facts: a memorable and disquieting experience.

98 pages, not 256 pages as stated.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An important, utterly enthralling collection 18 Mar 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
One of the foremost Iraqi writers of his time delivers his debut collection translated into English. By turns harrowing, beautiful, disturbing and inspiring, it is utterly unlike anything you have read before from an Arabic writer. Entering territory previously the realm of Western experimental / transgressive writers such as Ballard, Kafka or Burroughs, Blasim creates a compelling, deeply humanist narrative of the Iraq war, its aftermath and its historical background, filtered through the lens of brutal, intense imagery and an allegorical phantasmagoria of nightmare worlds and fractured realities.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars 18 July 2014
By chili
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Gritty, real , mental.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A gutpunch of a collection 2 Jun 2013
By Nathan Webster - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The back cover of this spare and harsh collection calls it "both phantasmagoric and real" and that's exactly right - as surrealistic as Hassan Blasim's stories might be, the reader can be only too aware of the essential truth in each of his story's premises.

Stories like the "Truck to Berlin," "Reality and the Record" and "The Corpse Exhibition" are the 'highlights,' and are disturbing and unsettling. These stories aren't exactly "about" the 2003 invasion, American occupation, or pre-war sanctions; instead, they but put a personal, close focus on the problems (an understatement of a word if there ever was one) faced by the refugees and citizens of the country's that our policies have affected for much more than just the past decade.

It's easy to take a political spin on stories like these, but they really aren't written like that - these are 'people' stories, and while often horrible, the story's narrators usually remain the focus, and so more accessible to a reader interested in lives, rather than events.

And like the best fiction, because we don't view it as "real," I think we can connect with the story a bit better than a memoir might have. Blasim is telling readers the up-close stories of these wars, whether it's called 'fiction' or not. The unsettling part is knowing that events in these stories might as well have happened for real, even if not word-for-word.

It's a shame that this collection - which I'm not saying is perfect - is not even published by a US publisher. The American readers who should be exposed to a voice like Blasim (via translation by Jonathan Wright) have the least access (and interest). Just a shame, though no surprise. Despite nearly 25 years of US-Iraqi conflict - and a trillion dollars we spent - we have no idea of what those people went through, and what we continue to leave behind. But....that's my own political screed, which Blasim thankfully avoided. He didn't need it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Collection of A Distinguished Writer! 26 Aug 2013
By Ghazali - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I've read many of Blasim's stories in Arabic and they are simply among the best in modern Iraqi and Arabic literature. Blasim's work is a true reflection of the chaos and madness suffered by Iraqi intellectuals from the seventies up to this day touching on themes of sadism, absurdity and nihilism. Blasim explores the variations of violence and ruthless destruction of man which sometimes amounts to levels of surrealism rarely explored in literature. It's worth mentioning that most of Blasim's work is heavily censored in Iraq and the Arab world and probably not published at all!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bold, brutal words 1 Aug 2011
By BronxRev - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I was looking for a book that was written about occupation Iraq and I found this one. It is an amazing gem of stories and I would recommend it to anyone--even if they are not interested in the Middle East. Most of the stories were merely good; yet all of them managed to paint a haunting landscape that lingers even after the book is closed. This ability to paint the absurd and violent was masterful and revealing of the psychology of any peoples who have been through such trauma. Read this book if you get the chance.
5.0 out of 5 stars Violence, paranoia, and self-destruction in Blasim's Iraq 23 Jun 2014
By Nicholas C. Triolo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I think that to begin to understand a historical moment, history books and news reports are never quite enough. In lieu of experiencing it, one needs to read literature whose creation was directly motivated by that moment. One of the most powerful contemporary voices of Iraq I have read is Hassan Blasim, whose simple but devastating prose in The Madman of Freedom Square offers a harrowing introduction to the darkest aspects of the country’s present and recent past. The book, a collection of short stories dealing with the period from the Iran-Iraq War up to through the United States’ occupation and subsequent internecine conflict, evokes an apocalyptic Iraq, a country which the U.S. invasion, a history of tyranny, and factional competition for resources and political power have turned into a waking nightmare for many of its inhabitants, especially its most vulnerable. Of course, this is far from the only face of modern Iraq, but it is the side which Blasim urgently wishes to convey. Taken as a whole, Madman is a deeply unsettling piece of literature, even for the cynical and world-weary. The gory scenes which Blasim matter-of-factly depicts are surprising because of how commonplace they seem to him. His protagonists are resigned to living in infernal conditions; ideas like human dignity and self-determination have become cruel jokes for them.

In the first story of the book, “The Reality and the Record,” a medical worker in Baghdad is kidnapped while cleaning up the scene of six decapitations. He is forced to film a video with the six heads, declaring himself to be an Iraqi soldier who has massacred innocent civilians. He sees himself on international news later. He is then sold, with much celebration, to another group, and then another still…to Islamic Jihad, to the Mehdi Army, to every militia in the country. Again and again he is dressed up and forced to make filmed confessions, often accompanied by gruesome props, to be broadcast on international news. “…I was a treacherous Kurd, an infidel Christian, a Saudi terrorist, a Syrian Baathist intelligence agent, or a Revolutionary Guard from Zoroastrian Iran.” He, like so many Iraqi civilians, is a pawn for violent militias and the proxies of international powers, a life whose only value resides in how it can be labeled and attacked by groups pursuing divisive ends. These groups will buy and sell human life without hesitation if it means attracting support, new recruits, resources, and international attention. The protagonist wearily recounts his story to an immigration officer in a European country. Is it fictitious? Of course – but it is also essentially true.

The titular story is brilliantly thought-provoking in its symbolism: two handsome, possibly foreign men, who walk wordlessly every morning through an impoverished quarter of an Iraqi city, inspire the people of the quarter to clean up their hovels, teach their children to behave properly, and make the neighborhood safe, colorful, and welcoming. Eventually the young men become legends, lionized by the people even as the latter fall victim again to the woes of long-term destitution and broader societal violence. The people had it within themselves to improve their reality, but now believe they needed some exotic, superior impetus to bring about the changes they themselves made; when their country is invaded and fighting spreads, they defend the statues of the young men, mere idols bereft of the transformative power imbued in them. The statues fall, and the people of the quarter succumb, losing themselves over time to the violence and madness all around.

Blasim himself left Iraq for Finland in 2004 to escape persecution as a filmmaker. Several of his stories, such as the poignant and tragic “Ali’s Bag” and macabre “The Truck to Berlin”, evoke the hardship, casual violence, and anomie to which illegal migrants are subjected in their flight from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria to Europe. Perhaps the best is “The Nightmare of Carlos Fuentes,” wherein an Iraqi man named Salim forsakes all ties with his country and adopts the Netherlands as his homeland, taking the name of the famous Mexican writer (of whom he is unaware) to mask his Arab roots, learning the history and language of the country, and marrying a Dutch woman. Carlos inwardly suffers great envy and despair experiencing the organization, cleanliness, and liberal attitudes of the Dutch, lamenting his former country’s continuous failure to pull itself out of the abyss of conflict and poverty and demonstrate even the most basic rudiments of order. In a bitterly comic fashion that blends the deep sorrow of the protagonist’s self-loathing with a wry commentary on how the European surfeit of resources and time leads to endless self-inquiry and fads of diet and alternative medicine, Carlos seeks more and more absurd ways to finally obliterate every last bit of his Iraqi-ness. Carlos Fuentes is the perfect pseudonym for this tortured soul, as Fuentes was a master of literary analysis of the economic relationship between Mexico (“the land that has nothing”) and the U.S. (“the land that has everything”) and its ramifications for the Mexican psyche. Like the pre-Colombian god Chac Mool, who tortures the man who purchases his statue but whose power is eventually diminished in the face of shallow modernity and consumerism, Salim is a primordial force outside the control of Carlos. He cannot be silenced by a mere change in language and espoused attitudes. The psychological violence of suppressing one’s very self is irreconcilable with life.

Blasim’s diction and style are unpretentious; but the scenes he conjures are hallucinatory. Images like the dream “of a sheep’s head talking about the sun” and a man’s flayed skin strung on a flagpole as an artistic expression sear the strangeness and brutality of Blasim’s vision into the reader’s mind. He is convinced that mankind has not come so far from the Hobbesian state of nature, pointing to the many open wounds that now fester under the often impotent gaze of the international community. Iraq has many such wounds. As pundits discuss the possibility of a redrawing of the country’s borders along ethnic and sectarian lines, the corruption and inefficacy of the present government of Nouri Al-Maliki, and ISIL’s desire to establish a new caliphate, the most important dynamic is that more innocent civilians are being murdered and threatened with violence and displacement on a daily basis, and resource insecurity threatens vast swaths of the population. In this context, it may be too much to hope for that Blasim will never again feel compelled to write another such tragic and bleak set of stories about his native land.

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