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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Madman of Freedom Square

Hassan Blasim

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To purchase The Madman of Freedom Square

Title: The Madman of Freedom Square
Author: Hassan Blasim
Genre: Stories
Written: (2009)
Length: 93 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Madman of Freedom Square - US
The Madman of Freedom Square - UK
The Madman of Freedom Square - Canada
  • Translated by Jonathan Wright
  • Written in Arabic, but this collection first published in English

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Our Assessment:

B : effective surreal spin on modern Iraqi horrors

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 5/4/2010 Hester Vaizey
The Independent . 6/10/2009 Marianne Brace
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2011 Mark Axelrod

  From the Reviews:
  • "Unflinchingly graphic descriptions of violence and explicit sexual references make this an unsettling read. Ultimately, though, the book reveals little about the Iraqi mentality that the reader could not have guessed." - Hester Vaizey, Financial Times

  • "While using familiar scenarios such as hostage-taking, suicide-bombing, exile, Blasim pitches everyday horror into something almost gothic. (...) Narrators retell tales with a mixture of truth and myth-making. Blasim's taste for the surreal can be Gogol-like. (...) The stories, translated by Jonathan Wright, have a slightly ragged quality. Anyone looking for easy explanations among the severed heads and worm-eaten corpses will be disappointed." - Marianne Brace, The Independent

  • "There is a kind of premeditated cadence to the translation, somehow maintaining a dispassionate approach to the material allowing the author to be submerged in the carnival of death all around him, and emerge somehow unscathed." - Mark Axelrod, Review of Contemporary Fiction

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The eleven stories collected in The Madman of Freedom Square are almost all rooted in the horrors of Iraq of the last decade, beginning with the Saddam Hussein-era but focused especially on the unstable and unpredictable years since the Anglo-American invasion in 2003 and the overthrow of the dictator. Many of the stories feature characters who are unbalanced -- there are more madmen than just the one of Freedom Square of the title story --, as many of them have internalized what they've witnessed and twisted experience into narratives that serve as some sort of explanation and hold for them. The story-ending twist of not everything being what it seems is used several times as well: fiction -- a re-writing and personal re-creation and digestion of events -- becomes a necessity, as the only way to deal with reality.
       Either way, as fact or fiction, what's described is rooted in the worst sort of horror, of meaningless violence and an incoherent world. A story like 'The Corpse Exhibition' is of pitch-black humor, positing a well-organized group that kills and displays corpses as a form of artistic expression, as concerned with theory as practice -- and adapting to the changing conditions around them: "We've started to rely on democracy and spontaneity of the imagination, and not on instruction." War-torn Iraq is an ideal staging-ground for their visions -- though:

You must understand that this country presents one of the century's rare opportunities. Our work may not last long. As soon as the situation stabilises we'll have to move on to another country. Don't worry, there are many candidates.
       This story, too, comes with a small (but complete) twist, as even taking a step such as the narrator appears to be ready to -- to become part of this particular absurd system -- is more complicated (or arbitrary) than one might have thought or expected.
       In the opening story of the collection -- and one of the must successful -- a man describes being kidnapped and then sold by various groups and factions to serve as the frontman in videos claiming responsibility for horrendous acts. "I carried out the mission so as not to lose my head", he relates -- and means it doubly literally, not wanting to wind up like one of the six heads he carries with him in a sack but also not to lose his mind; of course, any semblance of sanity is difficult to maintain under these conditions (as Blasim nicely shows in the final twists of this story).
       'An Army Newspaper' is an agreeably creepy tale of a man passing off a dead soldier's tales as his own, bringing him literary fame and great power -- but the he's confronted with the absurd situation of continuing to receive tales from this same soldier long after the man's death (driving him, of course, batty). Several tales consider parts of the refugee experience -- flight, the camps -- while others deal with aspects daily life (for as long as it lasts ...) in war-torn Iraq. Blasim uses the horrific conditions to move effectively between surreal and magical: a man carries a bag with his mother's bones on his long journey away from his detested family and Iraq, the one survivor among a truck full of illegal immigrants vanishes, an Iraqi emigrant changes his name to 'Carlos Fuentes' .....
       These are generally fine stories, competently written. Quite a few are quite clever and memorable. Blasim's use of the real-life horrors of Iraq in these years is effective in large part because he frees his stories from any sort of ultra-realism: the fanciful spins he puts on events make the horrors bearable -- even as these also often become more chilling. Despite coming in at less than a hundred pages, this is also a substantial collection -- probably the proper size: given the subject matter, much more might well have been hard to take.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 October 2009

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The Madman of Freedom Square: Reviews: Hassan Blasim: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Arabic literature

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About the Author:

       Hassan Blasim was born in Iraq in 1973 and emigrated to Finland in 2004.

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© 2009-2011 the complete review

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