Wars are not just about bombs and victories and destruction of human life; they also concern who gets to narrate it, and how, and to whom. Will Americans ever have the opportunity to watch a cinematic retelling of destruction of countries by their politicians and generals, directed and written by the children of the victims?
Is there a Vietnamese equivalent of Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now? Are Americans doomed to be duped by blockbuster action flicks such as American Sniper, debunking of the film by critics notwithstanding?
In fact, I was lucky enough to screen Iraqi filmmaker Oday Rasheed’s second feature film Qarantina at the San Francisco Public Library in partnership with a local non-profit. The remarkable film looks at the lives of Iraqi men, women and children shaped by the American occupation without showing a single soldier, except for a few long shots through the windshield of a tank, with sporadic sounds of aircraft and gunfire as background music.
The Q&A session with a limited audience was extremely profound. But that film, and perhaps a few others if they exist at all, is not part of the war narrative for Americans since nobody would dare distribute such a movie. Such films are rarely allowed outside the international film festival circuits. End of discussion. How about literature?
One would be hard pressed to find half a dozen works of fiction by Vietnamese writers about the Vietnam War translated into English. But a casual search in my library’s online catalogue under Vietnam War, 1961-1975 Fiction yielded over two hundred results, all by American writers. A lopsided view creates dissonance. That’s why Jonathan Wright’s translations of the Iraqi author Hassan Blasim’s stories are a step in the right direction. Wright has done a fairly decent job of conveying the urgency and roughness of Blasim’s prose. There’s nothing in the modern American fiction that even comes close to the way Blasim exposes the mess Iraqi lives have become, mixing black humour and horror into a poisonous soup.
It would not be off the mark to suggest that Blasim is to Iraqi (or even Arabic) literature what post-partition era Manto is to Urdu literature. Both are masters of irony. How would you like a story about a would-be executioner who gets cold feet when it comes to his debut and opts for stealing a child’s body from a morgue only to be killed by his accomplice the mortician, who is also the “in charge of the truth and creativity department”.
Or how about a young boy who is impressed by the murderous exploits of his brother but shows no emotions after hearing from his brother the story of an unfortunate Pakistani boy, who’s raped and then killed by Afghani immigrants in Iran? The story ends with the brother and his helper digging a grave and burying a man alive. “Abu Hadid kicked him in the back, and the man slumped into the hole. We shovelled soil on top of him and levelled the ground well. Abu Hadid gave my hair a sharp tug and whispered in my ear: Now you’re God.”
If the above examples don’t suffice, sample this:
“They found her feeding me shit. A whole week she was mixing it with rice, the mashed potatoes, and the soup. I was a shallow child, three years old. My father threatened to divorce her, but she took no notice. Her heart was hardened forever. She never forgave me…”
In another story two friends run joyously whenever a hearse enters their neighbourhood until it finally brings the father of one of the boys’ home. The boy sleeps with a whore whom they refer to as Drunken Boat after the poem by Rimbaud. After an explosion, one of the boys, Marwan, finds a policeman had entered his head, speaking constantly, eventually controlling Marwan’s thoughts. The policeman explains that when his body caught fire he ran screaming and collapsed. He split in two, one a lifeless corpse, the other a shivering body. Running, he saw Marwan under the rubble and went inside him to stay warm. “I can’t see anything. I’m in total darkness. Can you hear me?”
“Yes,” Marwan had said.
The unsentimental, cold style of Blasim’s prose hides his deep pain and anguish. At times it is easy to mistake his effort to humanise his characters as blue comedy or farce. Morbidity in his story does not point to a permanent state of human behaviour. What perplexes him is the human ability to sink too low in terms of moral behaviour. Reading his stories, I also thought of Manto’s Siyah Hashiye. No judgment, just a witness account.
Seeing his country lost in a morass of insanity, he writes as a stunned observer who is barely able to record behaviours both absurd and brutal, without judging. Blasim is clear-sighted in his thinking that uncivilised behaviour is a response to events much larger than the capacity of an individual to remain honest and sane. That’s why when the little boy in the story The Song of the Goats protests that perhaps he didn’t push his brother into the septic tank, suggesting the brother might have slipped by himself, and his friend reminds him that you confessed, he replies, “Perhaps they questioned me like the dictator’s police.”
Many reviewers in the US have drawn solace from comparing Blasim to Borges and Kafka, but that’s missing the point. All writers see themselves, to a varying degree, as outsiders yet connected to their immediate humanity, and the world they create in their fiction is a response to the conditions that make them outsiders.
Yet Blasim’s work is more akin to a The Diary of a Madman in its humour and frenzy. He is pointing to a world that lies shattered, primarily due to America’s two invasions and occupation, as if it is a work of a humanitarian organisation. Blasim has found the courage to express that shattered life without waxing eloquent. I am not too sure if the American readers, bar a few exceptions, have the mental capacity to engage with his stories.