David Hebblethwaite's Reviews > The Madman of Freedom Square

The Madman of Freedom Square by Hassan Blasim
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
2104529
's review
Oct 25, 12

Read in July, 2012

One thing I feel I ought to do more often as a reader and reviewer is engage with the issues; I tend to think more about how novels and stories work as pieces of fiction, and park the issues they deal with to one side. I probably shouldn’t do that, and certainly couldn’t do that with the stories in the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim’s collection, The Madman of Freedom Square (translated by Jonathan Wright), because they’re all about how stories shape people’s experiences of war and its consequences.

The opening piece, ‘The Reality and the Record’, illustrates what I mean. After a scene-setting introduction – which explains that refugees arriving at reception centres have the stories they tell to gain asylum, and the stories they keep to themselves, the ones about what really happened to them – we launch into the main body of the story, an account given to a Swedish immigration official by an Iraqi refugee. Our narrator tells how he was kidnapped from his work as an ambulance driver, and forced to appear in a video claiming to be a member of the Iraqi army. He describes how, over the subsequent months and years, he was kept in captivity, sold from group to group, and placed in front of a camera innumerable times, to play all manner of roles.

Stories upon stories upon stories – not just all these fake videos, but the refugee’s account itself, because who would believe such an outlandish tale? Generally speaking, I’d read something like ‘The Reality and the Record’ and praise its aesthetics in using story, the way it resists a definitive interpretation… I can still do these things, but I can’t ignore the emotional impact of Blasim’s portrayal of war as a maze of realities in which a person can so easily become lost. The narrator of the tale’s frame comments at the end that ‘the ambulance driver summed up his real story in four words: “I want to sleep,”’ p.11); those four words say so much.

Elsewhere in The Madman of Freedom Square, we see more characters being damaged and destroyed by war, stories, or both. The narrator of the title story refused to believe tales of two young blond men who left good fortune in their wake, until he was wounded in an explosion and apparently rescued by them; Blasim shows how blurred the line between sanity and delusion may be, and the final sentences are especially chilling. ‘The Truck to Berlin’ is another tale which layers hearsay upon anecdote in depicting what happens to a group of Iraqi men who pay to be smuggled out of the country; in the darkness of the truck, they don’t know what’s happening, or even if they’re actually heading to Berlin as promised – the conclusion is both brutal and powerful.

Dedicated ‘to the Dead of the Iran-Iraq War’, ‘An Army Newspaper’ revolves around a fairly straightforward – but nonetheless effective – metaphor. The now-deceased editor of an army newspaper’s cultural page narrates how he received anonymously-authored exercise books containing the stories of soldiers, and published them – to great acclaim – under his own name. But the books kept coming, until he was besieged. At the story’s close, the editor cries out to the writer who has temporarily brought him back to life, ‘why do you need an incinerator for your characters?’ (p.20). That’s just one example of how Blasim brings home the stark realities of war. Not all the stories in The Madman of Freedom Square are as successful, but the best pieces alone make the book worth buying. I’m very grateful to M. Lynx Qualey of the ArabLit blog for bringing Blasim’s work to my attention.
1 like · likeflag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Madman of Freedom Square.
sign in »

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

dateDown_arrow    newest »

Nelson Lowhim I like your review. There are some stories that miss, but it's a great collection over all.


back to top