Rest of the World: revealed

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So there it is, up there on the star in the top left of the picture: the 53rd – and last – book I’ve read on my Kindle for this project. But which of the shortlisted places and peoples not featured on the main list did it come from? Basque Country, Bermuda, Catalonia, Faroe Islands, Kurdistan or Native America?

Well, the voting was fierce. Nearly 400 of you took part in the poll and there was plenty of passionate campaigning along the way. You can see the full breakdown of results on the Rest of the World page, but the headline news is that it came down to a two-horse race between Jaume Cabré’s Winter Journey from Catalonia and Jalal Barzanji’s The Man in Blue Pyjamas from Kurdistan. Cabré held the lead for a long time, but in the end, thanks to some vigorous lobbying on the part of #TwitterKurds, Barzanji romped home to secure the A Year of Reading the World wild-card spot.

Written after its author was named PEN Canada’s first ever Writer-in-Exile in 2007, The Man in Blue Pyjamas tells the story of poet and journalist Jalal Barzanji’s life in Iraqi Kurdistan, his three years of imprisonment and torture under Saddam Hussein’s regime – throughout which he remained in the night-clothes in which he was arrested – and the lengths he went to to secure a future for himself and his family on the other side of the world. It weaves together Barzanji’s memories, the experiences of people he met along the way, historical events and Kurdish traditions to present a compelling picture of the contested homeland that both shaped and nearly destroyed the writer.

With its account of what it means to grow up in a nation that does not fit into the neat country borders most of us use to organise the planet, the memoir is in many ways a very fitting ‘Rest of the World’ choice. Opening with a map showing Kurdistan spread across portions of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, the book owes its structure to the sense of fragmentation that Barzanji grew up with – ‘I must present my story in small pieces because my life has been in pieces,’ he writes before going on to leap between past, present, ancient history and future, like a spider spinning a web between far-distant points.

Yet the struggle for national and cultural autonomy is only part of the story: for Barzanji the battle to make a life as a writer is every bit as fraught. Born in a house with no books or pens, the writer had to contend with his family’s incomprehension of his ambitions, draconian and often bewildering censorship laws, and the challenges of funding and publishing his own work. Crucially, it was not his years of imprisonment by the Iraqi regime nor atrocities like the attack on Halabja, but the infighting between different Kurdish factions that made Barzanji decide he had to flee his homeland and throw himself on the mercy of smugglers, as he explained to his wife Sabah: ‘”I have to go to a place where I can continue to be an independent writer. I do not want to take sides in this civil war.”‘

In the face of such huge obstacles, under a regime that transformed the library in which he first discovered his love of words into the prison where he was tortured, Barzanji’s dedication to his craft is deeply moving. His portrayal of the stories of his fellow Kurds – from the waggish Ako’s account of the difficulty of consummating his marriage because of his family’s cramped sleeping arrangements, to the devastating drowning of Shwan in a bungled people-smuggling attempt – lays bare the sense of duty that drove the author to risk everything for the sake of reaching a country where these experiences could be written. Not that Barzanji is quick to take credit for this – ‘that’s the way writers are: they seldom think about the consequences of what they do or write,’ he claims, seeming to shrug at us from the page.

Indeed, Barzanji’s style is so unassuming that you only realise the scale of what he has achieved in this book gradually. His skill shines through from page to page in the details that bring the experiences described home to the reader: the blood on the prison walls, the dyed moustache of the torturer, the boyhood trick of placing a flis coin on the railway track and waiting for a train to squash it into something resembling a more valuable coin, and the terrifying darkroom and stick reserved for the mentally ill at the sheikh’s house. It also appears in his endearing honesty about his shortcomings – his social awkwardness at parties, his habit of losing his luggage, his daydreaming.

Only when you step back from these intimate and immediate observations and survey the fragmented narrative in its entirety do you realise the extent of its power. Taking us to a place that many refuse to accept exists, Barzanji reveals what it means to be forced to weigh freedom, self-expression and survival against belonging, duty and the law. Seen from the final page, the story in pieces transforms itself into a beautiful and beguiling whole. A humbling read.

The Man in Blue Pyjamas by Jalal Barzanji, based on a translation from the Kurdish by Sabah Salih (University of Alberta Press, 2012)

Iraq: getting a perspective

There were quite a lot of contenders available in English for Iraq. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, given that the country has been in and out of Western headlines for more than the last 20 years. Still, it was good to know that the traumatic occurrences of recent decades had not disrupted storymaking in the region – or so I thought until I read this book.

The Madman of Freedom Square – the first commercially published short story collection by Hassan Blasim, co-editor of Arabic literary website Iraq Story – paints a brutal, yet layered picture of the effects of international events on individual lives in and around post-invasion Iraq. Often starting or ending with a mutilated corpse, the tales trace the connections that bind people to one another and reveal the psychological wounds that result when these ties are ripped apart. There are the refugees reduced to animal cruelty when the truck they are locked in is abandoned, the patriotic songwriter turned atheist who wanders the streets railing against God and existence only to meet a gruesome end, and the underground collective that roams Baghdad making art out of its murder victims.

More than anything, this is a book about the function of storytelling. From the very first tale, ‘The Reality and the Record’, in which a traumatised man tries to tell the right story to secure asylum at a refugee centre, the text interrogates the act of narrating, as though trying to identify its weak points and secret guilt.

Sometimes – as in ‘An Army Newspaper’, an account of an unscrupulous editor who gets trapped in his lies when the dead soldier whose work he has passed off as his own continues to submit reams of manuscripts – storytelling takes on monstrous, nightmarish proportions. At other points, as with the sensational anecdotes spread by gossipmongers in the wake of bomb blasts in ‘The Market of Stories’, it seems a low, self-indulgent exercise, a sort of ‘primitive tribal gibberish which tries to hide behind tasteless and gory laughter’.

That story, however, also holds something of a key to the text’s uneasy relationship with its own function. According to the narrator, it may have its roots in Iraq’s history:

‘Since the fall of Saddam Hussein there have been incessant calls for writing to be intelligible, realistic, factual and pragmatic. […] They claim that the writers of the past made the readers defect, whereas in fact for hundreds of years there were no readers in the country, in the broad sense of the word. There were only hungry people, killers, illiterates, soldiers, villagers, people who prayed, people who were lost and people who were oppressed. Our writers seem to have grown tired of writing for each other.’

It’s important to note, of course, that these are the narrator’s words rather than Blasim’s own. Nevertheless, the question of who narrates, who listens and the value of telling at all rankles throughout the book, inviting the reader to look beyond it to the man writing in Arabic in Finland – Blasim’s home since 2004 – and wonder who exactly these words are for.

Underpinning this unease are repeated comments on the world-altering properties of perspective, with many of Blasim’s narrators suffering from mental illness, trauma or profound emotions that render their accounts suspect. The most powerful example, however, comes in ‘The Virgin and the Soldier’, an account of two young lovers doomed to a horrific death when they are accidentally locked in at the sewing factory where they work at the start of a holiday:

‘In reality there was nothing in the factory but army uniforms, but the government’s aim was to make the UN inspectors suspect that the factory was used for prohibited military purposes. […]

On that morning the American satellite pictures could not of course detect the muffled screams on the second floor. The screaming was hardly audible, and desperate. From the end of a world that was dying it reached the sewing room, which was empty and looked like a dreary sunset over an abandoned city.’

Too much distance, Blasim seems to be suggesting, and we become unable to empathise with fellow human beings, like satellites monitoring the Earth from the exosphere. And yet, even as he writes this, the author draws us in to the heart of the events he describes, immersing us in their brutal, bloody and heartbreaking immediacy.

Some of the stories end less successfully than others and there are one or two twists that miss their marks, but overall this is a powerful and thought-provoking work that transports readers to the extremes of human experience – and a mental terrain most of us are lucky enough never to have to  travel through. If Blasim needed proof of the validity of storytelling, he has written it.

The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Comma Press, 2011)