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COLUMN: IRAQ'S NOVEL BOUNTY

February 24, 2019

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In a year of relentlessly pursuing good novels, some of the most interesting and amazing novels I read came, unexpectedly, from Iraq. Not that I was looking for them in particular. I abhor novels tagged with a specific place and branded as if they will come in useful as props to better understand the situation ‘over there’. I find them no better than newspaper reports and, sometimes, less readable. I fear that the same fate may be in store for Destination Pakistan as Western readers in increasing numbers may want to understand the otherwise contradictory country better, giving rise to a popular backdrop.

“One of the most extraordinary novels that I’ve read in a long time,” is how critic and writer Alberto Manguel describes Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer on the back of the book. I would agree, as I fumble for a word more appropriate than ‘extraordinary’ for this intense novel. Singular and slim, it is grim and frightening in hovering so close to death. What could be grimmer than the opening with a dream of a dead woman lying on a marble slab, where her naked body is to be washed before proper shrouding? At the book’s centre is the struggle of a young man who wants to be a sculptor, in defiance of his father’s wish of him taking up the family trade of washing corpses and preparing them for burial.

This is set against a country ravaged by war to such an extent that one gets a sense of the stench of death even outside the mortuary. The city has turned into a house of the dead and the entire country is a marble slab for storing the corpses. As the rituals for the dead are delineated in detail, one also gets glimpses of the love and beauty accessible to the artist while he struggles hard to avoid his fate as a corpse washer. More than any vocation, it is the grim state of affairs in his country which plays a role in determining his fate. Unwilling but continuing to live, he has to play the part of mghassilchi, the body-washer in a country where death is rampant and there is destruction all around.

Written under strong influence of the Romantics, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is probably the perfect read for this age of the Anthropocene and it was this reference which made me turn to Ahmed Saadawi’s riveting novel Frankenstein in Baghdad. In the alleys and living quarters of war-torn Baghdad, a man fond of telling tall stories, but known as a liar, goes around picking up body parts of people killed in bomb explosions. He finds a nose here and a limb there and uses them to assemble a new creature. Under the vigilant eyes of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, the United States’s intelligence and local television anchors, the creature emerges part by part to claim that he is the only integration the diverse country has achieved and the only remaining system of justice as he announces his intention to kill those responsible for the bomb attacks.

“In a land without bananas, the village awoke to nine banana crates, each containing the severed head of one of its sons. Along with each head was an ID card to identify the victim since some of the faces were completely disfigured...”

This search has, however, to be fed on dismembered bodies so that the required parts can complete human semblance. The drama in people’s lives unfolds and the city is in turmoil as the ingenious author mounts the tension to bring the story to its literally shattering climax. Laced with irony and black humour, tales of intertwined but distinct lives marked by collective fear contribute to a group portrait under duress. As he handles the complex theme with sophistication and ingenuity, one cannot but admire the author’s masterly command over his theme in what is clearly world-class fiction.

Browsing in a bookstore, it was the opening lines which caught my eye and drew me towards the very different and no less remarkable The President’s Gardens by Muhsin al Ramli. “In a land without bananas,” starts the novel, “the village awoke to nine banana crates, each containing the severed head of one of its sons. Along with each head was an ID card to identify the victim since some of the faces were completely disfigured, either by torture before the beheading or by something similar after the slaughter.” Enough to send a shiver down one’s spine, it made me think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his One Hundred Years of Solitude. But Iraq is no Macondo. Firmly rooted in Iraq’s terrain, Al Ramli’s novel vividly recaptures the history of the turmoil through the tempest-torn lives of characters who are thrown together from the warfront to the President’s immaculately cultivated garden — which is also the setting of brutal tortures.

The swift-paced narrative is compelling and the suspense heightens as the protagonist, Ibrahim, begins to work in the garden where the President is a rare sight but, in reality, is everywhere. The depiction of 20th century authoritarian rule with its fanfare and cruelty lingers in the memory long after the novel reaches its end. Such cruelty is never-ending and there is promise of more to come, as the last page of the book bears the announcement that some of the characters will “return in a new novel by Muhsin al Ramli” to be published in 2019. With a reversal in the title, the upcoming novel is to be called The Garden’s President and this should be enough to keep you on tenterhooks. More to look forward to in this year.

Antoon translated his novel himself while Al Ramli’s translator, Luke Leafgreen, recently won a literary award for this work. The translator’s craft has worked well to give an international flavour to these remarkable books. “Novels inhabit a liminal space,” writes Antoon in his brief preface, “between the real and the imaginary.” Each one unique in itself, the distinction between the real and the imaginary becomes almost blurred in these three brilliant tales as Iraq takes on the dimensions of the universal, too close for comfort, a grim reminder of what we could easily succumb to. These are novel reminders.

The columnist is a critic and fiction writer and teaches literature and the humanities at Habib University, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 24th, 2019