God 99, by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright, Comma Press, 278 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 9781905583775
The Iraq-born writer and film-maker Hassan Blasim fled persecution by Saddam Hussein’s regime in the early 2000s, enduring a harrowing asylum-seeking journey which ended in Finland, where he is now a citizen. In his short story collections The Madman of Freedom Square (2009) and The Iraqi Christ (2013), for which he won the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) as well as other work, he has shown extraordinary literary vision and innovation that leave the reader stunned by the formidable method in the seeming madness of his narrative techniques. His works drive realism and surrealism into a wildly intimate encounter approximating the paradoxical familiarity and strangeness of the landscapes of violence that he portrays across contemporary Iraq and its routes of forced displacement. It may not be a surprise then that his new work, God 99, which exceeds the bounds of its categorisation as a novel and is brilliantly translated from Blasim’s signature colloquial-inflected Arabic by Jonathan Wright, is a difficult work of literature, in the best senses of the word.
God 99 (alluding to the ninety-nine names of God in the Islamic tradition) invites multiple re-readings, not only due to its urgent subject matter and its elusive form but also because it can be read in multiple ways. This is a book with its own soundtrack, stirring the reader to go for a second read to the sound of the musicians it mentions: Radiohead, Massive Attack, Nils Frahm, Stromae, Bach, Ólafur Arnalds, Edvard Grieg, Björk , Nick Cave, Iraqi women singers from the 1930s onwards, and more. The book is also a playful guide to Blasim’s readings, packed with a treasure trove of literary marvels appearing through its pages like a tongue-in-cheek invitation to read them all: DeLillo’s The Body Artist, Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, Sartre’s L’idiot de la Famille, Camus’s The Fall, Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises, Bulgakov’s Diaboliad and Other Stories, Linna’s The Unknown Soldier, Krasznahorkai’s Satatango, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and more.
Blasim’s work boldly crosses generic spaces and creative terrains in various ways, including through a plot that consists of unconventionally structured interviews conducted by its protagonist, the Iraq-born Hassan Owl, with mostly Arab refugees in North European cities as well as Cairo ‑ a project for a funded art blog. The maze-like structure of the stories, which comprise relations of the interviewees’ own encounters with others whose lives are struck by war and disenfranchisement, straddles autobiography and fiction. They range from the account of personal tragedy driving a Syrian woman to find refuge in techno music in Berlin, where she becomes a DJ, to fragments of Hassan’s own asylum-seeking journey towards Europe. The structure does not only mock the inadequacies of the immigration and expert interview but more radically proposes a form of dialogical storytelling that does not refrain from exposing the traumatic scars of the forcibly displaced in its architecture of vignettes and short narratives ‑ a minimalism that persistently pushes the boundaries of its formal enclosures. God 99 presents a radical twist on subjectivity-as-relationality in its autofictional ventures: “I often think I see other people as magic mirrors at a fairground. You look at yourself and see that your face has become every face.” Opening up to Sara, whom he tenderly calls “The Whisper”, Hassan Owl describes the dark ironies of writing one’s life narrative in the aftermath of traumatic displacement: “You know, the old-new curse is how to tell a story! When I was a teenager I prayed to heaven to give me experiences in life so that I could be a good writer. Life went too far: it pummeled me, kneaded me, baked me, ate me and shat me out again, far more than was necessary, so much so that I can no longer tell the difference between my real life and my imagined life.”
As in Blasim’s short stories, the main route crossed by asylum seekers in God 99 is the Iraq-Balkans-North Europe trajectory. This is a route marred by the violence of suicide bombings in Iraq, brutal policing in the forest-border and the confusion of desire and distrust at the sites of arrival, whether in Finland or elsewhere in Europe, where Hassan Owl ventures through nightclubs, brothels, saunas, workshops, and myriad substitute homes. Yet, in this new work, other significant displacements, including those of the Kurdish population and the Roma, are also vividly evoked. Most poignantly, however, Hassan Owl’s endeavour to find his aptly named Uncle BBC ends in the tunnels of Gaza where he meets the smuggler-activist Suleiman whose face “looks as if he’s been travelling a long time, on a long arduous journey, lost and far from home”. Transforming Gaza from a site of spectacularised terror to become the ultimate destination of Hassan Owl’s personal journey in search of refuge is a tour de force. It asks for a focused re-engagement with Gaza as the locus of the tragically continued interconnection of displacement and immobility in the twenty-first century—no matter how arduous the journey towards this engaged realisation may be. Across these tunnels, Hassan Owl would be carrying the burden of the seekers of refuge, compelled to open their bags and their wounds at every crossing: “I will have goods on my back and goods in the pockets of my coat. The load wasn’t heavy but it was disturbing, tiring and mysterious ‑ like life, says Palomar, my shadow.”
At the Bulgarian border, Hassan protects “the naked Mr Palomar” from the threatening, distrustful soldier. Italo Calvino’s Mr Palomar, a work also written in vignettes, emerges as a literary and philosophical alter ego eliciting startling reflections on the struggle to find the right form to encapsulate experience. While Blasim’s short stories comprised some metafictional groundwork for deciphering what he referred to in an interview as his aesthetics of “nightmare realism”, God 99 is where the masonry emerges in clearly articulated technical terms. At one point, Said, a character described as “a novelist who had written one unsuccessful novel and was trying to write a second one” declares: “Only myths are good for this world – gory, frightening, violent myths, stories in which reality dies and delirium is born, stories that set the imagination free like an angry and wounded animal.” There is here a magisterial triangulation of one of the vital forces of magical realism, myth, with surrealist delirium, and the literature of nightmare, where human and non-human agency intermingle. In the section titled “Ali Transistor”, we get perhaps the most imaginative perspective on the multidimensional synaesthetics of nightmare realism: “I met the carpenter to exchange ideas on Ali’s last request. We decided that the shapes should be more abstract, like the charred bodies. We designed a child whose arms had been blown off in the explosion, making a sound like wings flapping. Next to the child there were grilled tomatoes and oranges, making a sound like flies buzzing. The child’s mother, who was set alight in the market and ended up as cinder, produced the roar of waves.”
In a book that abounds in scenes of psychological disintegration and physical dismemberment produced by conflict and forced displacement, the impulse throughout is a longing to connect, best articulated in the repetition of the word “hug” twenty-three times in the text, most notably in the line “Hugging is a powerful artistic statement!” Here it is Hassan Owl’s email correspondence with the elderly Alia Mardan emerging regularly between the interviews (based on emails Blasim received from his mentor and friend the Iraqi writer Adnan al-Mubarak) that gestures towards the close links between the human challenge and artistic potential of unconditional warmth. Importantly, Alia is featured as the translator of the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran (1911-1995), described as one who “enjoyed his own blasphemy and heresy”. In Blasim’s radical rethinking of the crisis of refuge, for the displaced, for Europe, and for those who seek to represent them, there is a whiff of Cioran’s thoughts, for instance as expressed in The History of Decay (1949): “It is enough for me to hear someone […] say ‘we’ with a certain inflection of assurance, to hear him invoke ‘others’ and regard himself as their interpreter ‑ for me to consider him my enemy.”
This is a book about the intimacy of the craft of writing with the challenge of reading and understanding, that pact of love and betrayal between writers and readers who half-know each other. God 99 celebrates the power of books yet has no illusions about their readers, anywhere they might be: “For many years, I had naively thought that if people read a lot and were interested in knowledge, their imaginations would set them free – free of imprisoning nationalism, free of nauseating pride, free of racism and hate. I thought that every book was a great love letter. […] A trail of hatred, pettiness and miscomprehension stretched from Baghdad to Helsinki.”
Rita Sakr is lecturer in Postcolonial and Global Literatures and co-ordinator of the MA in English: Literatures of Engagement at Maynooth University. She is a judge of the 2021 International Dublin Literary Award.