“An Army Newspaper” by Hassan Blasim
In the short story collection, The Corpse Exhibition, Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim frames the violence of Iraq’s last decade as a series of encounters with the horrific and bizarre, recounted by narrators disillusioned with the confused narratives of war. Given the prevalence of American writing on the Iraq War, Blasim’s work provides a necessary alternative perspective—as well as glimpses into human cruelty at the intersection of violence, magical realism, and ordinary life.
The following excerpt comes from Blasim’s short story “An Army Newspaper” which traces a general’s discovery of a mysterious short story collection from the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980’s to the present conflict.
TO THE DEAD OF THE IRAN-IRAQ WAR (1980-88)
We will go to the cemetery, to the mortuary, and ask the guardians of the past for permission. We’ll take the dead man out to the public garden naked and set him on the platform under the ripe orange sun. We’ll try to hold his head in place. An insect, a fly buzzes around him, although flies buzz equally around the living and the dead. We’ll implore him to repeat the story to us. There’s no need to kick him in the balls for him to tell the story honestly and impartially, because the dead are usually honest, even the bastards among them.
Thank you, dear writer, for brushing the fly from my nose and giving me this golden opportunity. I disagree with you only when you try to make the readers frightened of me by describing me as a bastard. Let them judge for themselves, I beg you, and don’t you too turn into a rabid dog. Congratulations on being alive! Just don’t interfere with the nature of the animal that you are.
Your Honor, ten years ago—that is, before I ended my life—I was working for an army newspaper, supervising the cultural page, which dealt with war stories and poems. I lived a safe life. I had a young son and a faithful wife who cooked well and had recently agreed to suck my cock every time we had sex. From my work at the newspaper I received many rewards and presents, worth much more than my monthly salary. As the editor will attest, I was the only genius able to enliven the cultural page through my indefatigable imagination in the art of combat. So much so that even the Minister of Culture himself commended me, gave me his special patronage, and promised me in secret that he would get rid of the editor and appoint me in his place. I was not a genius to that extent, nor was I a bastard, as the writer of this story wants to portray me. I was a diligent and ambitious man who dreamt of becoming Minister of Culture and nothing more. To that end I was dedicated in those day to doing my job with honor, as with the sweat of my brow I revised, designed, and perfected my cultural page like a patient baker. No, Your Honor, I was not a censor, as you imagine, because the soldiers who wrote were stricter and more disciplined than any censor I ever met in my life. They would scrutinize every word and examine each letter with a magnifying glass. They were not so stupid as to send in pieces that were plaintive or full of whining and screaming. Some of them wrote because it helped them believe that they would not be killed and that the war was just an upbeat story in a newspaper. Others were seeking some financial or other benefits. There were writers who were forced to write, but all that doesn’t interest me now, because at this stage I have no regrets and I am not even afraid. The dead, Your Honor, do not agonize over their crimes and do not long to be happy, as you know. If from time to time we hear the opposite, then those are just trivial religious and poetical exaggerations and ridiculous rumors, which have nothing to do with the real circumstances of the simple dead.
But I do admit that I would often interfere in the structure and composition of the stories and poems, and try as far as possible to add imaginative touches to the written images that would come to us from the front. For God’s sake, what’s the point, as we are about to embark on war in poetry, of someone saying, “I felt that the artillery bombardment was as hard as rain, but we were not afraid”? I would cross that out and rewrite it: “I felt that the artillery fire was like a carnival of stars, as we staggered like lovers across the soil of the homeland.” This is just a small example of my modest interventions.
But the turning point in the story, Your Honor, came when five stories arrived at the newspaper from a soldier who said he had written them in one month. Each story was written in a thick workbook of the colored kind used in schools. On the cover of each workbook the writer had filled in the boxes for name, class, and school, and none of the classes went beyond the elementary level, and each book bore a different name. Each of the stories was about a soldier with the same name as the name written on the cover. The stories were written in a surprisingly elevated literary style. In fact I swear that the world’s finest novels, before these stories that I read, were mere drivel, vacuous stories eclipsed by the grandeur of what this soldier had written. The stories did not speak of the war, though the heroes of them were all reluctant soldiers. They were a transparent and cruel exploration of sexual beings from a point of view that was childlike and satanic at the same time. One would read about soldiers in full battle dress, cavorting and laughing with their lovers in gardens and on the banks of rivers; about soldiers who transformed the thighs of prostitutes into marble arches entwined with sad plants the color of milk; soldiers who described the sky in short lascivious sentences as they rested their heads on the breasts of lissome women—magical anthems about bodies that secreted water lilies.
Quickly and with fascination I made inquiries to find out on which front and with which military unit the author of these stories was fighting.
From The Corpse Exhibition by Hassan Blasim. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, a Penguin Random House company. Copyright © Hassan Blasim, 2014.