'The Iraqi Christ' is the second collection of Hassan Blasim's stories to be published in English. As with its predecessor, 'The Madman of Freedom Square', most of the fourteen stories here originally appeared in Arabic on the web. The translator once again is Jonathan Wright.
Blasim has been widely recognised as a powerful and original voice in Arabic fiction, and this book is only likely to enhance his reputation. Blasim's style is best characterised as 'Arabic gothic' - although that is to ignore the fact that since writing from the East was itself a huge influence on the 'oriental tales' of European writers from the eighteenth century on, the priority is really in Blasim's favour: he is reappropriating a native tradition. The cover carries a rare admiring acknowledgement from M. John Harrison. This isn't out of place, since both writers share the habit of making the fantastic emerge out of the banal. Comparisons have also been made with Kafka, and Blasim has acknowledged the influence: but he is far from being a mere imitator.
One difference lies in the already extraordinary nature of the Iraqi reality that Blasim transforms here; another is his fearlessness in responding to that reality by juxtaposing what are normally thought of as different modes of writing. Some of these stories veer vertiginously - in the space of ten pages - between straight reportage, supernatural fantasy and paranoid speculation with near-total abandon: this gives them a surrealist edge.
The background - Iraq and its neighbours during the last thirty years - is already one in which murder, torture, betrayal, loss of family and exile are commonplace. The astonishing violence and inhumanity that characterise ordinary life in these stories make the passage from the everyday to the extraordinary seem logical, almost inevitable.
Nonetheless, Blasim extracts meaning and on occasion even hope from this material without falling into absurdity or the macho sentimentality of blood and violence. It's a high-wire act that constantly risks failure but succeeds brilliantly. Highly recommended to anyone interested in contemporary fiction.
140 pages, not 176 as stated.