First published as a part of a contest in The Clarity of Night
“Coffee?” He exclaimed, without waiting for my reply, then jived his way to the kitchen, a song on his lips. I smiled. The rugged terrain and the daily dance of death had failed to harden him.
I finished the painting with a smudge of blue. He joined me, holding his drink. For an infantryman fighting seven thousand miles away, a four-day trip back home was luxury.
After discussing his health, the kitties, and the weather, I told him about the divorce and Mark remarrying. Was he upset for being kept in the dark? His lips clipped with unsaid words. Was it the heat when he yelped at gulping a large sip of coffee?
Caffeine over, he was back to his ebullient self. “Let’s see how the masterpiece looks.” He placed the canvas on the wall. “I’m gonna steal this one once I start living on my own. Make sure you sign it.”
“It’s yours,” I said with a weak grin.
“Well, aren’t you a sweetheart?” He hugged me.
Then, he gave me the gift; two beautiful crystal lights. He positioned them at the ends of the chest, just below the painting.
Three days later, a day before his nineteenth birthday, I received his death notice. Today, he would have been twenty.
I stepped into the room that had remained unlit for a year. I turned on the two lights and glanced at the painting.
“May the light shine for you, my son,” I whispered, before a lump blocked my throat.
The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright
What is left when a place dies a thousand violent deaths?
A million stories sprout over the graveyard. Each narrator is a Scheherazade (of One Thousand and One Nights), except none of them is compelled to tell a tale for fear of being killed. Some of them have already crossed over to the other shore and even the ones living know death to be staring them in the face. Yet the emotive force — mind-bending and magnetic — of the voices echoing through Hassan Blasim’s short stories forces the listener/reader to be pulled into their universes — macabre and enigmatic as they are.
I felt the sharp stab of Blasim’s storytelling knife in The Corpse Exhibition — the very first story in the collection. Written in the backdrop of the Iraq War, the story puts a chilling spin on the practice of displaying executed bodies in public. The narrator, evidently the boss of an organization curating the corpse exhibitions speaks in a clinical tone to a prospective new hire. The emphasis on the aesthetics of displays — one of the top pieces the boss cites is that of the corpses of a breastfeeding mother and her child both naked placed under a dead palm tree with not a trace of wound — layers the story with a degree of perversion that’s so disturbing it is riveting.
Read the rest of the review here.