The Madman of Freedom Square

by Hassan Blasim

Translated by
Jonathan Wright

Comma Press 2009, Paperback
First collection

Hassan Blasim was born in Baghdad in 1973. He studied at the city's Academy of Cinematic Arts, where he twice won the Academy's Festival Award for Best Work. In 2004 he moved to Finland, and has since made numerous documentaries for Finish television. His short stories have previously been published on www.iraqstory.com.

Read an interview with Hassan Blasim




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"But I see no need to swear an oath in order for you to believe in the strangeness of this world."

Reviewed by Mithran Somasundrum


In The Market of Stories, from this collection, Hassan Blasim writes that, "Since the fall of Saddam Hussein there have been incessant calls for writing to be intelligible, realistic, factual and pragmatic." Completely ignorant of the Iraqi literary world, I have no idea whether this is true or not, but if so, then Blasim has set out to swim against the tide with the strongest of strokes. For he has decided to let the camera lens of his documentary-style writing swing outside of reality. The resulting stories can either be read as true events seen through a prism of madness, or as a fabulist tapestry where the threads are stained by real blood. The tipping point to madness is often not clear, we only suspect it must have happened.

In the opening story, The Reality and The Record (one of the collection's strongest), a Baghdad ambulance driver is kidnapped and then passed from one jihadist group to the next. Each group beats him and then videos him admitting to atrocities. We hear the man's story as he tells it, in a refugee centre in Sweden, explaining to the immigration officer why he was found back in his ambulance with six severed heads. Even as he explains, the driver admits "those six heads cannot be proof of what I'm saying, just as they are not proof that the night will spread across the sky." Ultimately the only thing we can trust is his last four words: "I want to sleep." But then, like many of the characters here, he no longer cares whether anyone believes him.

Certainly the "madman" in Freedom Square no longer cares; he only wants to rest in the shade, and of course the plagiarizing editor of the Iraqi newspaper doesn't care (An Army Newspaper), because he's already dead and facing up to the identity of the writer whose letters he stole. In fact, the only character who wants to be believed is Jankovic, the Serbian policeman (The Truck To Berlin), who tells his wife about Iraqi refugees locked in a truck in a field and the fantastic occurrence when the truck was opened... But then Jankovic probably still expects to have some control over his life.

That expectation has gone from most of the Iraqi characters, who find themselves at the whim of forces (fate, governments, God) they can't understand or appeal to. Characters like Private Hamid (The Virgin And The Soldier), who works in a factory producing army uniforms and only wants a chance to be alone with Fatin without her brothers knowing. The factory is wrongly suspected by the U.N. of being used for "prohibited military purposes," and with that fact, and non-existent WMDs, in mind it becomes possible to see Hamid's end as a mirror of his country's: "a man who fell victim to a macabre story."

Even when the characters here do try to start again, their past comes with them. In Holland, Salim changes his name to Carlos Fuentes and claims to have a Mexican father, but in his dreams Iraq returns with a vengeance (The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes). In Finland an Iraqi refugee wakes with a smile on his face that he can't remove, even when surrounded by neo-Nazi thugs (That Inauspicious Smile).

By the end of this collection you feel that Blasim's choice has been the right one. Why stick to reality to describe unreal times? Often bleak, often bloody, sometimes quietly, powerlessly angry, these stories show us Iraq without theorizing abstracts, through the eyes of its people. And so to the Madman in Freedom Square. He remembers the time of two angelic blond men who transformed his poor district, but were driven away by the military coup. No one else seems to share this memory and perhaps it's all to do with the piece of shrapnel in his head. We can't know, because Blasim doesn't tell us, which interpretation is correct. We can only realize that if he's not insane he must be that more worrying thing: someone who knows the truth.

Listen to one of the stories from this collection on Spoken Ink (paying website)

Win a copy of this book! Visit the competitions & giveaway page.


Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London and currently lives and works in Bangkok. He has published short fiction in Natural Bridge, The Sun, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Minnesota Review, Zahir and GUD among others.
Mithran's other Short Reviews: "Best American Mystery Stories 2007"

James Burr "Ugly Stories for Beautiful People"

Steven Wingate "Wifeshopping"

Theodore Q. Rorschalk (ed) "Touching the Monkey"

                     
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