The Iraqi Christ Review

The Iraqi Christ is both an appropriate and inappropriate name for Hassan Blasim’s collection of short stories on the Iraq War. The title is a clever strategy to engage readers: the juxtaposition of ‘Iraq’ and ‘Christ’ compels one to tear the book from the shelf to see why the two words have been shoved together. And any title that generates interest in the genre of the short story is worthy of commendation. The evocative image of the The Iraqi Christ also speaks to Blasim’s surrealist writing—which features miracle makers in exploding war zones, inexplicable events and deranged minds, and a blurred line between fantasy and reality.

But Blasim’s stories might not be what readers expect. The stories focus less on realistic descriptions of war-torn Iraq and more on the psychologies of its denizens. Just as Tolstoy’s War and Peace is read for its universal depiction of the experience of war, the churning in Iraq acts as a foregrounding catalyst for the agitated minds of its victims. It is not for nothing that the narrator in “The Hole” falls into a ditch beside a Russian soldier from a different era and devours his flesh. Like all great works of literature, Blasim’s stories are more readily found (or lost) on the unchartered borders of the imagination than on the historical lines of a map.

Writing within the context of sensitive issues, Blasim directs his readers toward how they should perceive his stories. In “The Dung Beetle,” the narrator reflects Blasim’s approach to writing: “By the rules of authenticity I should write a realistic novel about a life of water, about lamentation and the grandchildren of Ali ibn Abi Talibo … (But) the most important mouse I know,” he goes on to say, “which has helped me predict my destiny is Kafka’s mouse.” Blasim does not limit himself to the creative expectations of any community. Instead he projects violently onto the page the obsessions that drive him to write: an inexplicable urge to convey a world of diseased desire. Blasim’s compulsion is, “one of Kafka’s poisons, and its title is, ‘A Short Story’.”

Blasim has been critically compared not only with the Czech author, Kafka, but also with Chilean novelist, Roberto Bolano. Similar to Bolano’s masterpiece, 2666, Blasim’s opening story describes characters who critique the stories of others. The difference is that these critics are not professionals traveling to international conferences; they are average Iraqi citizens who have been encouraged by a Baghdad Radio Station to share their horrific experiences in a public contest. In “Song of the Goats,” Iraqi citizens assemble in front of the station doors in long lines to bleat out stories “stranger, crueler, and more crazy” than the next. These stories preface the rest of Blasim’s compilation by acting as self-referential frames for the bizarre and twisted narratives waiting just up and around the bend. The Iraqi audience (a substitute perhaps for the reader) roars indignantly when a girl ascends the stage and shares a story that does not impress them. They yell they have suffered much worse! But as a government official reminds the discontented Iraqis, it is not always as important ‘what happens’ in a story so much as ‘what effect’ is instilled through the story’s delivery.

And Blasim is a master of delivery. In almost every one of his stories a magically realist element is employed to reveal something about the internal states of his characters, often based in some sort of traumatic event. Following Zizek’s lead in Agitating the Frame, if might be appropriate to ask what Blasim’s stories would be about if we removed his surrealist twists. The “Iraqi Christ” would be about a man who switches place with a suicide bomber to save his grandmother from a restaurant terrorist attack. “The Green Zone Rabbit” would be about two hit men double-crossed and a lucky escape from a car bomb. “Crosswords” would be about a man who, witnessing a policeman’s death in a fire, compulsively visits the family of the deceased in an effort to relieve his conscience. And “The Killers and the Compass” would be about a gangster who forces his younger brother to bury a corpse to initiate him into a new religion—where God is a strongman who isn’t afraid of murder.

These stories revolve around hypothetically ‘real’ scenarios in Iraq. But without a genie in the hole; without telepathy; voices from wolves and the dead; possession by ghosts; and Blasim’s own fantastic appearance in three of the tales as character, listener, and narrator, how might the stories be different? They might not be too unlike the stories of the bleating citizens in the radio contest—remarkable tales of suffering and woe, but perhaps unable to transport readers into the perspectives of those who, like goats, face the butcher’s knife.