Book Review - God 99

Hassan Blasim, winner of the Independent foreign fiction prize for The Iraqi Christ, conveys the violence of conflict and the bleakness of the refugee experience with stark imagery and unapologetically brutal prose. In the 1990s, as an Iraqi film-maker living under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, Blasim suffered intimidation and arbitrary arrest. He fled to Kurdistan, endured a four-year journey across Europe, and eventually found asylum in Finland in 2004, where he began his short-story career.

Described as Iraq’s Irvine Welsh, Blasim avoids writing in classical Arabic, claiming it does not reflect ordinary lives or adequately describe human suffering today, and clearly delights in shocking his reader. At one point he is musing on the work of Italo Calvino, before describing “fucking” and licking “arseholes”. I suspect he wants to jolt the reader into thinking about language – the search for the words to confront violence and trauma is a recurring theme. God 99 is messy, and occasionally feels like a work in progress, although there are flashes of brilliance throughout, and Jonathan Wright’s translation of Blasim’s street Arabic is no mean feat.

The protagonist, Hassan Owl, an exiled Iraqi living in Finland, decides to conduct a series of interviews with individuals whose lives have been “disrupted” by war, persecution and poverty, and to turn their experiences into a blog. Although presented as a novel, God 99 is effectively a collection of stories, punctuated by a literary dialogue about reality and fiction between Owl and an enigmatic writer-translator. Blasim’s dedication informs us that this is based on correspondence with his literary mentor, and fellow Iraqi, the late Adnan al-Mubarak.

In The Son’s Game, a designer devises a video game in which the journeys of refugees are controlled by a Trumpian figure Blasim deliberately intertwines his own biography with Owl’s experiences. Stories spill into one another and truth and invention become increasingly blurred. As Owl/Blasim observes in The Dark Room: “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 pummelled me, kneaded me, baked me, ate me and shat me out again, far more than was necessary… I can no longer tell the difference between my real life and my imagined life.” This is brought home most forcefully in The Grasshopper Eater, where Owl describes Blasim’s own recorded attempt to cross Bulgaria. One of their group, a Nigerian woman, was raped by Bulgarian soldiers: “We could hear her screaming and crying as she implored them to stop, and all we had to offer her were our tears. We had carried the woman on our backs throughout a cold and dismal night, just so a modern army could rape her.”

Equally disturbing is Face Mask, in which an Iraqi baker explains why he changed profession to make funeral masks for those mutilated by daily explosions and suicide bombers. In The Son’s Game, a young designer devises a video game in which the clandestine journeys of refugees are controlled by a Trumpian figure, Mr Rubbish. In Mr Palomar, Owl observes a transformative moment after being released from a brutal night in prison: a fat man in glasses drops one of his books and he discovers Calvino’s Mr Palomar. The man visits Owl in his dreams, gives him his glasses and tells him: “I’m Mr Palomar… I’m not going to leave you. We’re friends for ever.”

Blasim’s blunt rhetoric, macabre humour and blurring of reality and imagination can feel overwhelming, but the refugee experience is traumatic: language is bewildering, memories are clouded and truth is often distorted to save lives. Blasim perfectly captures that sense of alienation.

Originally published by The Observer