Reviews > Published on January 29th, 2014

Bookshots: 'The Corpse Exhibition' by Hassan Blasim

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq

Who wrote it:

Skip the bedtime tea and cocoa when reading this book and break out something harder—you’re going to need it.

Hassan Blasim, author of The Madman of Freedom Square (longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 2010) among other titles.

Plot in a Box:

The Corpse Exhibition is a collection of dark, fablelike stories from some of Iraq's blackest days. 

Invent a new title for this book:

The Art of Killing Softly

Read this if you like:

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer or Cairo by Willow Wilson.

Meet the book's lead:

The protagonists of The Corpse Exhibition are an eclectic lot, from book-loving assassins to a fake Mexican going by the conspicuous pseudonym of 'Carlos Fuentes.'

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

Despite being written by a film director, I have a difficult time envisioning The Corpse Exhibition as a movie.

Setting: Would you want to live here?

Not if you paid me.

What was your favorite sentence?

For God's sake, what's the point, as we are about to embark on war in poetry, of someone saying, "I felt that the artillery bombardment was as hard as rain, but we were not afraid"? I would cross that out and rewrite it: "I felt that the artillery fire was like a carnival of stars, as we staggered like lovers across the soil of the homeland."

The Verdict:

The Corpse Exhibition is not an easy book to categorize or review. Where to even begin? Blasim presents a brutal side of humanity. Book shot is appropriate here; these short stories are like swigs of whiskey to be downed in quick succession. Men have their skin sliced off, women are whipped and forced into prostitution. Much of the pain is senseless, such as the occasion when one character mutilates a vegetable seller’s face because he was “drunk and felt like it.” Through this prism, the reader gets a rare glimpse of a broken, lawless land.

The author writes primarily in Arabic, so the February debut is actually a translation, with many of the stories having already been banned across the Middle East. Blasim’s language is visceral, gritty, and completely unflinching on even the most graphic of topics. There are traces of magical elements woven in, including a precognitive compass, a dead man who speaks to the audience in monologue, and a society of highly sadistic assassins. Some of the stories read like Gothic fables, reminiscent of the violent and confounding original tales of the Brothers Grimm or Arabian Nights. It bears mentioning that in this book, dull conclusions are anathema. Every story ends with a bang (sometimes in the form of a literal explosion).  

The author’s own background is as worthy of note as many of the tales in The Corpse Exhibition. Blasim was forced to flee Iraq for Finland to avoid persecution by the Hussein dictatorship after making a controversial documentary. One can’t help but wonder whether some of the themes in the book might be slightly self-referential. In a story called ‘An Army Newspaper,’ Blasim analyzes even those who write about war instead of waging it, sarcastically calling slaughter the inspiration of “such artistic largesse, such love, such poetry.”

The Corpse Exhibition is a truly unique collection of work, guaranteed to satiate anyone with a thirst for the surreal, macabre, or even those interested in seeing the conflict in Iraq from a new perspective. It's not a pleasant read, but the value of the stories is undeniable, and there isn't a single bit of fluff in the entire collection. Skip the bedtime tea and cocoa when reading this book and break out something harder—you’re going to need it.

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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