Friday, 5 November 2010

Review: Hassan Blasim, 'The Truck to Berlin' (Comma Press, 2009)

In 2009, Comma Press published a collection of short stories by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright. The collection, entitled The Madman of Freedom Square, features a series of surreal and hyperreal stories inspired by the Iraq war, and by the West's troubled relationship with Iraq. The stories span over two decades and explore paranoia, exile, human trafficking, the refugee experience, as well as many other issues. The collection is uncomprising, sometimes shocking, unnerving and challenging.

As a Mancunian writer, I am (naturally) a big fan of Comma Press. For those of us who live in Manchester, Comma represents a real home-grown success story. For those that don't, Comma is a champion of the short story form - unusual in today's publishing world. Until earlier this year, I was more familiar with Comma's anthologies, particularly their excellent horror output (The New Uncanny and Phobic). In the course of organizing the She-Wolf conference, Comma editor Ra Page recommended that I take a look at The Madman of Freedom Square, and especially the story entitled 'The Truck to Berlin'. This was my first real experience of Comma's works in translation, and I was very impressed.

'The Truck to Berlin' is a story of people smuggling. Specifically, it relates a tale of young men being transported from 35 Iraqi men who pay to be transported from Istanbul to Berlin. The men each pay $4000 for a journey in a closed truck by the pious smuggler Haj Ibrahim ("the best and most honest smuggler in all Turkey"). It is, above all else, a story of desperation. The Berlin story is framed by a narrator's own attempts to save enough money to pay "those who smuggle the human cattle of the East to the farms of the West"; before beginning the story of the ill-fated truck, he relates a previous incident in which a group of Afghan men were deceived into parting with money only to be loaded onto a truck, driven around the city in darkness, and left in a public garden in Istanbul to be arrested.

That the truck will not reach Berlin is made abundantly clear in the opening sentence: "... if I were destined to write it again, I would record only the cries of terror which rang out at the time and the other mysterious noises that accompanied the massacre." I won't go in to too much detail about the circumstances of this "massacre", although it will most likely to be clear given the usual content of this blog. However, this story does not hinge on a shock reveal or a supernatural terror. It is a carefully crafted piece of uncertainty, paranoia and dread. Blasim's writing (translated from the Arabic by Wright) is a perfectly-pitched blend of real and fantastic horrors. In fact, distinguishing the 'real' from the 'fantastic' is not even possible. For example, in describing his own exile, the narrator states: "... I was on the run from the hell of the years of economic sanctions, not out of fear of hunger or of Saddam Hussein. In fact I was on the run from myself and from other monsters."

So, what is responsible for the "massacre" on the truck to Berlin? Though it may seem obvious, given the usual subject matter of this blog, the story gives no concrete answer. The whole story is presented thirdhand. The Serbian police officer who finds the truck is not listened to; the story comes into the hands of "Ali the Afghan" who is "a treasure trove of smuggling stories", and relates it to our narrator; we are told the story dispassionately, but by one who appears to believe.

Are we expected to believe the implied explanation of what occured on the truck? Perhaps the more important question is can we believe it? Given the context of the story, I would argue that we can. The Madman of Freedom Square introduces us to a sometimes hallucinatory, sometimes nightmarish, world where extremes of violence and terror are all too real. At the beginning of 'The Truck to Berlin', the narrator outlines this hyperreality: "... in my view the world is very fragile, frightening and inhumane. All it needs is a little shake for its hideous nature and its primeval fangs to emerge."

As many critics have noted (including Fred Botting, whose Limits of Horror was the last book reviewed on this blog), today's fiction often presents us with sympathetic monsters: werewolves and vampires have become the 'norm', rather than the aberration. Horror and fantasy have long been mediums through which we explore our humanity and its limits. 'The Truck to Berlin' is a different type of horror. Here the reader is challenged to confront the limits of our inhumanity. In Blasim's work, those "primeval fangs" that are so often part of something recognizable, comforting, attractive even, are detached from romance and Gothic sensibilities and resituated in a "frightening and inhumane" world that is, nevertheless, all too real.

For more information about The Madman of Freedom Square, please visit the Comma Press website.

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