Freedom: Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Amnesty International and Mainstream Publishing, 448pp, £7.99
The Madman of Freedom Square, Hassan Blasim, Comma Press, 96pp, £7.99
To mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Amnesty International has published an anthology of short stories by writers from around the world, with each story exploring one of the Declaration’s thirty articles. The title of the book, however, is perhaps its greatest fiction, for within its pages there is precious little in the way of personal liberty and only the merest of victories to celebrate.
In his foreword, Archbishop Desmond Tutu reminds us that the power of literature is that it enables us to empathise with others, to walk a while in another person’s shoes. ‘Stories,’ he says in his ever-exuberant, ever-hopeful fashion, ‘can bring understanding, healing, reconciliation and unity.’
If empathy is key to healing our world then we must accept the challenge to extend that empathy not only to the victims of abuse but also to the unsavoury perpetrators. In ‘The Effects of Good Government on the City’, A. L. Kennedy transports us from the funfair at Blackpool Pleasure Beach to the ominous white tiled rooms of the Abu Ghraib-esque ‘Castle’ where ‘an endlessness of waters’ can never wash away the smell of fear. Through the use of the second-person, Kennedy puts us directly into the shoes of the interrogator and hands us our own share of guilt. In this haunting, dystopian world which is far, far too familiar there is no hope in ‘a further than the moon and boxed underground time when there are miracles’ and a chance of redemption. In this world we are all victims and we are all doomed.
Human trafficking is the business in Marina Lewycka’s ‘Business Philosophy’ where again we are given insight into the minds of the abusers. ‘No one goes out to hurt the girlies deliberately,’ the amiable narrator assures us, for ‘a punter doesn’t want to screw a girlie with a black eye.’ He implores us to understand that he’s a businessman, however, and in the course of protecting his assets, he must sometimes enforce a bit of discipline.
Some of the stories in this collection are heavy-handed in their delivery of the human rights message and there are a couple of occasions when the Declaration is mentioned by name. This lends a preachy sense to the prose which pulls us out of the realms of fiction and reminds us that these stories have a humanitarian purpose. The best, however, the stories that live on after the book is closed, are those in which the writer trusts his own story-telling skills and trusts the reader to imagine.
Police brutality, government-sanctioned torture, rape, humiliation, disappearances and murder run throughout the book. These are the ‘necessary evil’ which Kennedy’s narrator justifies, the dark deeds which those who strive to acquire or maintain power sometimes employ. Our government should take note, for it’s through these deeds that we all become dehumanised: the victim, the abuser and all who stand by knowing that abuse is taking place.
There is, however, amid the misery and despair, an occasional glimmer of hope. In Walter Mosley’s strangely uplifting story, ‘The Trial’, residents of a New York tenement, failed by a corrupt judicial system, take the law into their own hands and find community empowerment. And in ‘Innocent Passage’ by Ariel Dorfman, the narrator survives the military coup in which thousands were murdered and the government of Salvador Allende was overthrown. Likewise, in David Constantine’s ‘Asylum’, hope arises simply because the characters do not succumb. It’s not much to cling to, but in this collection mere survival is enough.
Written in response to the atrocities of the Second World War, the Declaration imagines a world in which ‘no one shall be held in slavery or servitude’ (Article 4) and ‘all are equal before the law’ (Article 7). We know that the Declaration’s contents are a fiction, but like the title of this book, it is a fiction to which we must still, urgently, aspire.
In The Madman of Freedom Square, the debut collection by the Iraqi filmmaker and short story writer Hassan Blasim, the distinction between fact and fiction becomes even more untenable. Mixing allegory and historical events, Blasim takes us on a grisly tour of the tragedy that is modern Iraq, showing us the stark and uncensored images of a world gone mad.
‘Everyone staying at the refugee reception centre has two stories,’ the narrator tells us in the opening line of the opening story, ‘the real one and the one for the record.’ In ‘The Reality and the Record’, we learn that for a refugee to tell the full truth of what he has endured is to risk being denied asylum and sent back to the horrors he has fled. The reality is quite simply beyond belief.
We begin the descent into madness with a flour sack containing the severed heads of six murdered clerics, and proceed to run a gauntlet of vigilantes, insurgents, cannibals and ordinary opportunistic murderers. The parade of mutilated corpses is relentless, and without exception the stories are oppressive and bleak. In ‘An Army Newspaper’ Blasim takes us back to the time of the Iran-Iraq War when a seemingly endless number of Iraqi soldiers were sent to their deaths. ‘The Composer’ tells the story of a once powerful man who outrages his neighbours by setting to music blasphemous insults to the Prophet and his wives. In an era where ‘religion has made more progress than necessary’ his music acquires new significance but ultimately leads to his demise. At a training school for killers, the sociopathic narrator of ‘The Corpse Exhibition’ sees murder as a form of artistic expression and encourages ‘creativity and inventiveness’ in his students.
The horrors do not stop, even for those who buy their way to safety in the West. In ‘Ali’s Bag’, a young asylum seeker carries with him more than the memory of his mother’s brutal murder, and in ‘The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes’, an assimilated refugee finds that he can never truly forget his past.
There is an uncomfortable hyper-realism to these stories which may be attributed to Blasim’s experience as a filmmaker. At times, the pages are so awash with blood they seem to drip. Many of the stories have an unusual structure in which one narrative voice is nested within another. Few, however, have satisfying endings, either on an emotional or literary level. Occasionally, too, the imagery slips: ‘his baggy grey suit was as sad as the doors in the old district’ may make perfect sense in the original Arabic, but seems an odd simile in translation.
Blasim offers no refuge from the carnage he describes, provides no insight to the madness and makes no apologies for the violence, but in ‘The Market of Stories’ we glimpse his attempts to make sense of the world. ‘When a whole people or a group of people face an accumulation of many years of war, terror, poverty and destruction, then looking for illogical or even trivial details is tantamount to mumbo jumbo.’ The reasons for the madness lie much deeper, but Blasim offers us one hope – the hope that if the real reasons can be found, then we might also find a way back from the insanity.