The Madman of Freedom Square

Hassan Blasim

translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright
Comma Press 2009
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011 http://dannyreviews.com/
The eleven stories in The Madman of Freedom Square are dark, macabre tales of modern Iraq and Iraqi refugees, involving starvation, cannibalism, madness, murder, terrorism, blasphemy, nightmares and guilt, among other topics.

An ambulance-driver seeking refugee status tells a story of being kidnapped and forced to act in propaganda videos. A horror love story unfolds in a textile factory suspected by UN inspectors of being a weapons plant. Refugees trying to get from Istanbul to Berlin by truck meet a terrible end in a Balkan forest. A composer of patriotic war songs turns into an atheist blasphemer. And so forth.

These stories are starkly realist in their presentation, with finely sketched details of places and people, but surreal or fantastic in their framing and implications, with sudden twists and surprises. They depict a world where violence has corrupted language and thought, where it makes perfect sense to refer to its effects to explain the appearance of everyday objects: "The wind blew over a price list parked outside a closed restaurant, then it brought along a large cardboard box which flew around like half a dismembered body."

This may sound distressing, but the storytellers — and there are storytellers in all the stories, even if they are sometimes penumbral — maintain enough distance, structural as well as emotional, that the effect is not overwhelming. The hyperbolic violence is sufficiently varied that it never loses its impact, and is never pushed to the point of becoming comic.

The stories in The Madman of Freedom Square are only brief, but manage to dig into the horrors hidden behind the facade of ordinary Iraqi life over the last thirty years. This is a powerful collection.

April 2011

External links:
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- details at Comma Press
Related reviews:
- more Arabic literature
- more short fiction
%T The Madman of Freedom Square
%A Blasim, Hassan
%M Arabic
%F Wright, Jonathan
%I Comma Press
%D 2009
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781905583256
%P 95pp