Want to see how the marketing of a book is affected by who publishes it? Look at Iraq + 100, a collection of stories by 10 Iraqi authors imagining hWant to see how the marketing of a book is affected by who publishes it? Look at Iraq + 100, a collection of stories by 10 Iraqi authors imagining how their country would look 100 years after the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation by the United States. When originally released in the U.S. last December, the book was subtitled Stories from Another Iraq. Forge, an imprint of noted science fiction publisher Tor Books, has changed the subtitle to The First Anthology of Science Fiction to Have Emerged from Iraq.
That change doesn’t alter the book’s mission, which is perhaps represented by the fact that, having roots in September 11, 2001, the Forge edition is released this week. Rather than wrapping stories around the 2003 invasion, something editor Hassan Blasim did in his own short story collection The Corpse Exhibition, Blasim asked the writers to do something rare for Iraq. As he notes in his introduction to the book, “Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing.” In fact, Blasim was concerned it would be difficult to find writers willing to imagine Iraqi cities 100 years in the future.
Like most anthologies, the end result is mixed. Additionally, Western readers’ perception or appreciation of the book may be affected by the fact seven of the 10 stories were originally written in Arabic and each has a different translator. To the extent this is science fiction, it is “soft” scifi exploring the cultural, political and psychological effects of the invasion and occupation of the country. There’s also a little magical realism and surrealism utilizing Iraq’s and Islam’s history and culture.
Some stories offer optimism. In “The Gardens of Babylon,” Blasim’s own story, while Baghdad is managed by a Chinese corporation, it has become “a paradise for digital technology developers.” Likewise, despite desertification and environmental degradation, this Baghdad is divided into 24 Chinese-designed domes, each a new garden of Babylon. The city exports the world’s best software and extraordinary scientific discoveries.
Ali Bader imagines a peace-filled future, at least for Iraq. In “The Corporal,” an Iraqi soldier returns to Kut, where he died in the 2003 invasion. “There are no more Sunnis, Shi’as, Christians” in Iraq, he is told, because organized religion is viewed as an impediment to knowing God. The country is long free of conflicts or civil wars. America, however, has become "an extremist state" ruled by religious radicals much like the Taliban governed Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S. is “part of the axis of evil.”
Other futures are far more dystopian. In “Operation Daniel,” Khalid Kaki's Kirkuk is a wealthy city-state cut off from the rest of Iraq and governed by the Chinese. All languages but Chinese are forbidden and the punishment for anyone speaking or reading in them is being incinerated and “archived” in a synthetic diamond. Diaa Jubaili bases “The Worker” on a statute of that name in Basra. The city exports or has consumed every imaginable resource. It never lacks corpses, whether from disease or starvation. Despite a virtual total collapsed, “the Governor” reassures those still in the city with a monthly address about historical events that surpass the city’s own catastrophes and suffering.
Whether hopeful or despairing, these stories may have Americans ruefully recalling what Gen. Colin Powell reportedly told President George W. Bush before the invasion of Iraq: "You break it, you own it.”
Most people probably don't start pondering the power of art after seeing the classic German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But then authorMost people probably don't start pondering the power of art after seeing the classic German silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But then author James Morrow isn’t your average person. After all, he spent the 1990s "killing God" in The Godhead Trilogy. A self-described "scientific humanist," Morrow’s last several novels explored the scientific worldview through the perspectives of the struggle between science and superstition in the early 17th century, genetic engineering and ethics, and evolutionary theory.
With his new book, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, Morrow unmistakably moves from science to the humanities aspect of the definition of humanist. Morrow, who made 8mm and 16mm films in high school and college, uses the 1920 German silent horror film as inspiration and a foundation for the book. The movie is about a sideshow hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, who uses a somnambulist (Cesare) to commit murder and kidnap the narrator’s fiancee. When the narrator later follows Dr. Caligari, the hypnotist appears to be the director of an insane asylum. While some consider The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari the first true horror film, it’s best known for its visual style, one which has led many to proclaim it the quintessential cinematic example of German Expressionism.
The movie’s sets and objects deliberately and bizarrely distort perspective, scale and proportion. Sharp-pointed forms, such as grass that looks like knives, and oblique and curving lines dominate. Streets are narrow and spiraling while buildings and landscapes lean and twist in unusual angles. Some of the landscape is painted on canvas and shadows and streaks of light also are painted directly onto the sets, imbuing the film with a two dimensional aspect. While Dr. Caligari is central to Morrow’s book, The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is built around and focused on the extensive expressionist art motifs in the film. In fact, art is both a centerpiece and the vehicle of the book’s antiwar theme.
The story is told from the perspective of American artist Francis Wyndham, whose first name is also that of the film’s narrator. Through him, Morrow introduces art from the outset. Wyndham attends what is known as the Armory Show, a 1913 modern art exhibition in midtown Manhattan that introduced the American public to European avant-garde paintings and sculpture. Wyndham is so enthralled with what he sees there, he ends up setting out for France shortly before the outbreak of World War I. He dreams of being an apprentice to Pablo Picasso, who promptly throws him and his portfolio down a flight of stairs. Wyndham refers to his encounter as “Rube Descending a Staircase,” a takeoff on Marcel Duchamp's “Nude Descending a Staircase,” displayed at the Armory Show. Undeterred, Wyndham seeks out other cubist artists, such as Duchamp, Georges Braque and André Derain.
When Wyndham meets Derain, the artist is being mobilized into the French military. He asks Wyndham to undertake Derain’s new position as art therapist at Träumenchen, an insane asylum. Located in the neutral fictional country of Weizenstaat abutting Luxembourg and the German Empire, Träumenchen is run by Dr. Alessandro Caligari. Echoing the film, Caligari is a former sideshow hypnotist and now an alienist who considers Freud a charlatan. Caligari believes hypnosis is the future of psychiatry and all treatment at Träumenchen on is based on the theory of heteropathy, in which a patient’s mental condition is treated by inducing an opposite disorder. (Cesare also resides at the asylum but in Morrow’s tale he is a black cat. Caligari’s sideshow somnambulist here is Conrad Röhrig, now his private secretary.)
Caligari also dabbles in painting, completing his magnum opus the night Wyndham arrives. Called "Ecstatic Wisdom" based on a chance remark by Friedrich Nietzsche when he was a patient at Träumenchen, the work is some 30 feet long and 15 feet high. Looking forward to the war’s "aesthetic intensity" and believing it "transcendentally meaningless," Caligari created the painting with alchemical pigments. The alchemy enables "Ecstatic Wisdom" to brainwash men into kreigslust ("war lust").
Here, the book shares a common analysis of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: Dr. Caligari represented the militarist German government during World War I and Cesare symbolized how, upon becoming a soldier, the common man is conditioned to kill. Seeing the painting as financial security for his asylum, Caligari charges each warring nation as they send a constant procession of troop trains to Träumenchen. The soldiers march by the painting and afterwards "radiated a boundless desire to find a battle, any battle, and hurl themselves into the maw." This artistic war machine doesn’t just create the fodder. Within a month, the asylum is full of soldiers suffering from shell shock,
Throughout, Wyndham is teaching art therapy to a paranoid, a former chess grandmaster constantly narrating classic matches, a man who says he’s traveled the solar system in his private spaceship, and Ilona Wessels, who hails from Holstenwall, the fictional town that is the setting of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. She believes she is the Spider Queen of Ogygia, the island in Homer's Odyssey, and she and Wyndham are immediately attracted to each other. Caligari encourages them to live together to provide Wessels "la cura amore" treatment. Knowing of Caligari’s painting and its effect, they form a cabal with other patients and employees to sabotage the scheme.
Morrow uses language consistent with a story being told by someone living in that period (‘batwinged incarnations of melancholia, catatonia, paranoia, and dementia praecox swirled all about me"), helping set the book’s narrative tone. A variety of Latin, French and German phrases dot the text so an online translator will aid readers. Likewise, due to the numerous art references, a reader is well-advised to have handy access to art history sources (or even Wikipedia). Surprisingly, though, Morrow’s pursuit of verisimilitude is undercut by either "artistic license" or an error in the first chapter. It has Wyndham meeting artist Henri Rousseau in Paris in the summer of 1914. Rousseau, though, died in September 1910.
That aside, the book is generally well-paced through Caligari’s discovery of the cabal, except for the space allotted to depicting the sexual adventures of Wyndham and Wessels. The last third of the book, however, feels a bit rushed and underdeveloped considering the cabal ends up on the Western Front and Wyndham, for example, doesn’t return for a month. The hurried feel is bolstered by the fact the run-up to and the ultimate denouement feel chimerical and even more fantastic than Caligari and his creation.
The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is an inventive homage to and extrapolation of concepts in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. At less than 200 pages, it’s also a pithy commentary on the power of art and the folly and hysteria of war. Ultimately, though, despite being a thoughtful read, the book does not wholly realize its aims.