Book Review: The Corpse Exhibition
By Will Schick
Available for the first time in English, Hassan Blasim’s collection of short stories titled The Corpse Exhibition will twist your stomach into knots in a manner of sentences as it takes you on a topsy-turvy tour of life inside a modern war zone. You might want to pop some dramamine, the road to this vantage point you never knew existed, is bumpy.
Blasim’s stories aren’t your typical war stories—these aren’t tales of soldiers triumphing against all odds, or returning home to struggles with PTSD. Set in the backdrop of Iraq, both during and after Sadaam Hussein’s reign, every story in The Corpse Exhibition follows a highly experimental form that gives voice to those often brushed off as human scenery or “collateral damage” in Western war narratives. Blasim tells us what war is like from the local Iraqi perspective and it is horrifying.
The first story in Blasim’s collection takes place entirely within one dialogue tag that opens with a simple, yet powerful action, “Before he took out his knife he said…” Written like an extended monologue, the next series of pages feel like a suspenseful journey of discovery into the mind of the protagonist’s assailant. You will feel your heart murmur as it screeches to a stop when Blasim later closes out the inciting action at the story’s end with a sentence that begins: “And then he thrust the knife…” And this is only the collection’s beginning.
Other stories in the collection follow the lives of not only soldiers and ordinary citizens, but those of mystical spirits and ginnis, terrorists and government-sanctioned hitmen. In “An Army Newspaper,” a propaganda worker tries to decipher the mystery behind the spontaneous appearance of brilliant works of literature. “The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes,” follows the travails of an Iraqi refugee who changes his name and moves to Europe.
Everything Blasim writes is purposefully unpredictable and suspenseful, each sentence building off-the-chart tension that he feeds you in unflinching, gripping narratives that will both horrify and enlighten you.
Most impressive is the way Blasim seems to integrate elements of magical realism into the modern war narrative. His stories speak to the mysterious and unforgiving nature of organized violence, something people have come to know intimately since the dawn of humankind.
Do yourself a favor in the new year, and pick up this book. It’s a must-read.
Photos: Author’s website
Will Schick is a guest contributor to Cafe MFA and a first-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.