The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq, by Hassan Blasim, is the most important book to come out of the Iraq War. Blasim, whom I met with last week in Princeton, N.J., has a faultless eye for revealing detail, a ribald black humor and a psychological brilliance that makes every story in his book a depth charge. In this collection of short stories he explores through fiction the culture of violence unleashed under the bloody dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and exacerbated by an American occupation that has destroyed the damaged social cohesion and civil life that survived Saddam’s regime. His prose, courtesy of a brilliant translation by Jonathan Wright, is lyrical, taut, and riveting.
Militarism and violence are diseases. It does not matter under what guise they appear. Renegade jihadists, Shiite death squads, Sunni militias, Saddam’s Baathists and secret police, Kurdish Peshmerga rebels, al-Qaida cells, gangs of kidnappers and the U.S. Army 101st Airborne are all infected with the same virus. And it is a virus Blasim fearlessly inspects. By the end of this short-story collection the reader grasps, in a way no soldier’s memoir or journalistic account from Iraq can explicate, the crucible of war and the unmitigated horror of violence itself. The book is a masterpiece.
“When I was 6, during my first year at school, the Iran-Iraq War erupted,” Blasim told me in a mixture of English and Arabic. “We were living in Kirkuk. We were taught in school to draw tanks or the face of Ayatollah Khomeini as the enemy. The city of Kirkuk was beautiful. There were flowers everywhere. But we were never taught the names of the flowers. Even today I do not know the names of these flowers. I tried to learn their names as an adult.”
“There was a culture of violence that predated the occupation,” he said…