Jokes for The Gunman by Mazen Maarouf (translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, Man Booker International Prize 2019)

9781846276675

Here we have a collection of stories told from the perspective of the young. The narrators seem to believe in their ability to overcome the death and fear which surrounds them. Their wishful thinking wounds me in its futility.

One of them thinks he will be able to buy a glass eye for his father; at the end of the story we learn the son must wear a glass eye after losing his in a game where a ball strikes him in the head. My sorrow for him is mitigated by the fact that he wanted to sell his deaf twin brother to get the money for his father’s eye.

Another father who plays the gramophone in a bar loses both his arms when a bomb strikes. He asks his son to give him one of his arms, for him being reduced to one is better than the father having none.

In “Biscuit”, a son drives his mother to a care-home, not because she has Alzheimer’s, “but to make sure she goes on believing the biscuit story.” A story he told her when an elderly man was killed at an intersection as they were passing through. The fantastic story he told involved this man “hopping nimbly between the vehicles, avoiding one car, dodging and weaving, whirling around, spinning like a wheel, doing splits and throwing feeble punches.” Whenever the old man touched the side of a car, he would turn it into a biscuit. Making it much more palatable a situation, of course, than the man spinning futively to his death.

“Aquarium” is about a clot of blood, which could or could not be a foetus. The couple loves it, and names it Munir, and keeps it in an aquarium. Of course there had to be such a story, in times like these when people don’t seem to know when life starts.

As you can see, not all of the stories are about war, although most of them are. They are interesting, and bizarre, but not nearly as dreadful as Samanta Schweblin’s collection reviewed earlier.

It’s interesting that two of the thirteen books on the long list are short stories. I always think the novel has so much more power.

(Thanks to Granta for the copy of Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf to review.)

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, Man Booker International Prize 2018)

“You better find where your body’s gone,” he said, “or else things are going to end badly.”

Hasib was killed in an explosion outside of the hotel he was guarding, and his soul without a body found a body without a soul in which it could dwell.

Elishva, an old woman known an Umm Daniel, or Daniel’s mother, is convinced her son is not dead even though he has never returned from the Iran-Iraq war.

“Get up, Daniel,” she shouts. “Get up, Danny. Come along, my boy.” With these words she has animated the soul of the hotel guard who has inhabited the disparate body parts put together by Hadi, the junk dealer.

Thus Frankenstein in Baghdad comes to life. At first he is called Whatsitsname, and the first murders he commits are those of drunk beggars he doesn’t know whom he arranges in a circle, each with his hands around another’s neck.

He said he tried to avoid them, but they were aggressive and tried to kill him. His horrible face was an incentive for them to attack him. They didn’t know anything about him, but they were driven by that latent hatred that can suddenly come to the surface when people meet someone who doesn’t fit in. p. 125-126

His murders become a means of vengeance. His creator, Hadi, sees the reason he exists as this:

…the Whatsitsname was made up of the body parts of people who had been killed, plus the soul of another victim, and had been given the name of yet another victim. He was a composite of victims seeking to avenge their deaths so they could rest in peace. He was created to obtain revenge on their behalf.” p. 125

Except, with revenge, where does the killing stop? Especially terrible, is that the monster says he’s “the only justice there is in this country.”

Time was my enemy, because there was never enough of it so accomplish my mission, and I started hoping that the killing in the streets would stop, cutting off my supply of victims and allowing me to melt away.

But the killing had only begun. At least that’s how it seemed from the balconies in the building I was living in, as dead bodies littered the streets like rubbish.”

When he kills an innocent, frightened old man in the street, he arrives at a fresh explanation.

My head was swimming with conflicting thoughts, but I held firm to the idea that I had only hastened the old man’s death. I was not a murderer: I had merely plucked the fruit of death before it fell to the ground. p. 155

Of course the larger picture is of the situation in Baghdad itself, where things more unbelievable than monsters running the streets or people returning from the dead occur.

Dead people had emerged from the dungeons of the security services and non-existent people appeared out of nowhere outside the doors of their relatives’ humble houses. There were people who had returned from long journeys with new names and new identities, women who had spent their childhoods in prison cells and had learned, before anything else in life, the rules and conventions for dealing with the warders. There were people who had survived many deaths in the time of the dictatorship only to find themselves face-to-face with a pointless death in the age of ‘democracy’ – when, for example, a motorbike ran into them in the middle of the road. Believers lost their faith when those who had shared their beliefs and their struggles betrayed them and their principles. Non-believers had become believers when they saw the ‘merits’ and benefits of faith. The strange things that had come to light in the past three years were too many to count. p. 227

So who is to blame for all the evil that has happened in Iraq? Does this monster represent a Shiite extremist? An “agent of foreign powers” as described by the Iraqi government? A man designed by the Americans?

Whoever he is, if only his arrest could actually have stopped the unrest that is in Iraq.