Real Time Short Stories

Hermetic Spaces: Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Reality And The Record’

Posted on: December 10, 2011

And now we hood our enemies
to blind them. Keep an eye on that irony.

[Michael Symmons Roberts, from ‘Hooded’, in The Half Healed (Cape Poetry, 2008)]

Within the Hermetic Spaces category, I’m developing the ideas around short fiction’s relationship with temporal and spatial confinement that have emerged from my Café Shorts musing and which I began to lay out in considering Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall a few weeks ago. And, although I’m dealing with a short story in this post, Hermetic Spaces will also take in the mechanisms of writing and just being that this blog likes to discuss. The invitation to draw up a seat and join in the conversation should be taken for granted.

Hassan Blasim‘s The Reality And The Record might also have made a lateral contribution to the Reel Time Short Stories series. Blasim has released films in his native Iraq as well as in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan and since taking up residence in Finland. When I was writing that sentence, I thought twice and decided against describing Blasim as, first, a “respected” film-maker, and then a “successful” film-maker. Under dictatorship, to what does “respect” amount? In exile, what counts as “success”? The conditions Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright, writes about in his 2009 Comma Press collection The Madman Of Freedom Square, force us to interrogate platitudes and to re-consider all manner of language:

What I’m saying has nothing to do with my asylum request. What matters to you is the horror. If the Professor was here, he would say that the horror lies in the simplest of puzzles which shine in a cold star in the sky over this city. In the end they came into the cow pen after midnight one night. One of the masked men spread one corner of the pen with fine carpets. Then his companion hung a black banner inscribed: The Islamic Jihad Group, Iraq Branch. Then the cameraman came in with his camera, and it struck me that he was the same cameraman as the one with the first group. His hand gestures were the same as those of the first cameraman. The only difference was that he was now communicating with the others through gestures alone. They asked me to put on a white dishdasha and sit in front of the black banner. They gave me a piece of paper and told me to read out what was written on it: that I belonged to the Mehdi Army and I was a famous killer, I had cut off the heads of hundreds of Sunni men, and I had support from Iran. Before I’d finished reading, one of the cows gave a loud moo so the cameraman asked me to read it again. One of the men took the three cows away so that we could finish off the cow pen scene.

The narrator here was a Baghdad ambulance driver and is now an asylum seeker who has made his way to Sweden from the war in post-Saddam Iraq. In his testimony, he gives a graphic illustration of what might constitute a form of Hermetic Space that extends beyond a moment in time in one specific location. Certainly, the claimant has experienced confinement: he has been kidnapped, bundled into his stolen ambulance, driven over Baghdad’s Martyrs Bridge and held hostage. Prior to the video detailed in the quote above, he has already been recorded for a hostage video on behalf of his original kidnappers, before being dumped, kidnapped again by someone else and then put through the same process. He continues to be passed back and forth across Martyrs Bridge and around the terrorist organisations of Iraq: recording videos spouting a panoply of scripted confessions, each of which are filmed by the same man, whom he suspects to be the “Professor”, the eccentic director of the hospital Emergency Department for which he drove his ambulance. The weary account of this horror story is told in tones of grim farce that bring to mind the character of Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. The ambulance driver’s perpetual entrapment, at the hands and in the viewfinder of these feverish, amateur content providers for Al-Jazeera’s rolling news, articulates a locked-in state and it’s only escape and the chance of asylum that offers a resolution.

However, it’s not simply the condition of kidnap victim that indicates a narrative unfolding within a Hermetic Space. The claim, that the war is being conducted as a Mexican stand-off on YouTube with most hits wins, cannot be taken as the truth, can it? Who is to know what the truth is of the man’s account? A fantasy wrought from the dislocating experience of kidnap? An elaborate cover-up for atrocities of his own? The story he thought he would need to secure asylum? Or even just a truth too unpalatable to be admissable? In zeroing in on the way war renders reality an impossibility to gauge, Blasim’s story is a good accompaniment to Tim O’Brien’s 1990 insertion of a Vietnam War tale into a narrative hall of mirrors, How To Tell A True War Story. It also points to the way in which War itself can be a narrative sealant, within which short stories can show us not so much the fixtures and fittings of a given conflict but a portrait of the human condition caught in a rapture of inhumanity.

Still from the final part of Masaki Kobayashi's Japanese WW2 trilogy, "Ningen No Joken III" ("The Human Condition")

For further examples, we might look across Comma’s roster to the newly-published The War Tour by Zoe Lambert, which makes explicit the notion that it is War, not this war nor that war, whether here or there, then or now, that fastens us within particular narrative states. I might also point to my own consideration of the psychologies of wartime in my two Flax chapbook stories, The Prisoners and Overnight. Our proximity to conflict, or the blend of denial and unease – like the knowledge of the rat populations sharing our cities – that comes with ordinariness in times when conflict is ongoing but remote, makes a new story out of each of us on any given day, in any situation. But it has to be said: this is especially so when there is a hood covering our face, a gun to our head and a scripted confession on autocue.

We leave the last word to the Professor: ‘The world is just a bloody and hypothetical story. And we are all killers and heroes.’

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3 Responses to "Hermetic Spaces: Hassan Blasim’s ‘The Reality And The Record’"

[…] other contemorary writers have pursued unifying themes for their short story collections – Hassan Blasim and Zoe Lambert‘s variations on war; Anthony Doerr‘s employment of memory as a framing […]

[…] including collections by David Constantine, Jane Rogers, Adam Marek, Guy Ware and The Iraqi Christ, Hassan Blasim‘s feverishly-anticipated follow-up to The Madman Of Freedom Square. I’ll be discussing […]

[…] Blasim’s debut collection for Comma, 2009′s The Madman Of Freedom Square (from which “The Reality and the Record” provided a previous post for this site), was an eloquent, retching cry of disgust; The Iraqi Christ […]

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