The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim

This is a collection of short stories that made me want to reread even as I was reading. There is a pleasing mixture of the surreal and the contemporary real that bares the hallmark of great short story writing; think Borges, Kafka, George Saunders, Raymond Carver, Dambudzo Marenchera.

Blasim moves with ease from the fantastic tales of childhood and superstition, to bizarre snippets of human interest that highlight the grotesque and pointless moments of soul- or solace- searching in the daily lives of ordinary people. Men and women fall into time-warping holes (‘The Hole’) or try to remember what happened the day their brother fell into the septic tank (‘The Song of the Goats’). A woman dies from ingesting rat urine when out pleasuring her dog (‘Why Don’t You Write a Novel, Instead of Talking About All These Characters’, great title). A man living far from his country, from his family, obsesses over the life of a dung beetle, dreaming he is the larva growing inside a world of excrement and being lovingly cared for by his mother, pain (‘The Dung Beetle’). Concentrated crying can make knives disappear (‘A Thousand and One Knives’). An animal observes and is saddened by human behaviour (‘Dear Beto’). A drunkard goes home and becomes prisoner to his own imagination when he sees a wolf in his flat (‘The Wolf’). This same drunkard wonders if art is only ever the manifestation of another’s dream while another character questions if villagers stories about drought-bringing trees springing from a woman’s thoughts can be anything more than the babblings of the ignorant (‘Sarsara’s Tree’).

I’m not sure which story is my favourite. Sometimes it is weeks later that such favouritism rises into conscious musing and Blasim’s stories are definitely ones that will set my mind turning even when I consider myself to be thinking of something else. Ultimately, these stories are inspiring. They ask you to look closer, to think more deeply and in less well-travelled ways. They ask readers to pay attention not just to their stories but the world around them. This is the kind of writing that reminds you how powerful short stories can be. I definitely recommend The Iraqi Christ and will probably read his other collection very soon.

Next week I’ll be reading The Undertaking by Audrey Magee.

Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

Rudi has always wanted to be a chef and it has taken him far from home, across many of Europe’s now multiple borders. Sometime in our future separatism has spread through the world like a rash. Even buildings fight to become nation states and passing between these countries presents a challenge Central, a group of Couriers, have become expert at meeting. Documents, people, anything you need delivering incognito requires a courier. When Central recruit Rudi his life becomes a series of seemingly unconnected drops and meets until he is given a key to a whole different set of borders.

There is much to like about this novel: the effortless crossing of genre borders; the way the story creeps up on the protagonist in ever tightening circles, new sections often beginning with different characters whose lives turn around the arrival of Rudi; the mesmerising story line that keeps you hooked on unravelling the mystery of this world just beyond our reach. However, despite greedily returning to the book I’m still not sure about where it ends. The book takes an unexpected turn that intrigues and bemuses me. I’m not sure how well it was foreshadowed or where the novel can go from here if it doesn’t get developed in a sequel and I want a novel, even if it is going to be part of a series, to feel whole in itself. I don’t think Europe in Autumn quite does that, but it does stay in the mind and it does capture what a continually fractured Europe might look and feel like. The espionage is cleverly rendered, driving the plot with a kind of old-fashioned noir appeal all the more enticing because of the future setting. If you like a mixture of crime, espionage, sci-fi, alternate realities, you can’t go wrong with Europe in Autumn. Even if you only like one of those things, you should give it a go. Whatever else you might feel about the novel, you can’t deny that Europe in Autumn is an expertly crafted tale.

Next week I’m reading The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, winner of the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the only prize dedicated to fiction in translation.

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Tenth of December is a kind of monstrous collection – monstrous in that it acts as a portent, a warning of what life has in store, of how soon life is over, of how easy it is to exploit others and take a misstep along the road of social cohesion. The way that Saunders happily throws genres into the blending pot and creates stories with surreal, dream-like edges that can send a reader into labyrinths of possible actions and paths is reminiscent of Borges. What he adds to all of this is humour. This is a writer you want to meet, someone who you feel has truly written themselves onto the page, someone prepared to tell the truth about what they see in this world of ours.

In ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’ his narrator is writing about his life for future generations. Not long after winning money on a scratch card, he writes:

“Have been sleepingwalking through life, future reader. Can see that now. Scratch-Off win was like wake-up call. In rush to graduate college, win Pam, get job, make babies, move ahead in job, forget former feeling of special destiny I used to have when tiny, sitting in cedar-smelling bedroom closet, looking up at blowing trees through high windows, feeling I would someday do something great.” (location 1786)

Saunders writing is a like a “wake-up call”. It is innovative, anarchic even. He isn’t afraid to play with language or grammar if it better tells his story and this playful fearlessness is wonderfully refreshing.

I’ve read one other George Saunders book and was struck then in the same way. Here is a unique, embracing voice. A voice that would flounder in England without the kind of accolades Saunders work comes with from America. I can think of several English short-story writers who have a similar mix of the bureaucratic-bizarre – Guy Ware, Adam Marek, Paul Blaney – but we don’t seem to grasp and reward these writers. I wish we did.

I don’t want to summarise the stories. I don’t want to say, oh, in this one… I just want you to read this collection.

Next week I’ll be reading Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson.

The Notebook by Agota Kristof

I said I would read The Notebook this week but I bought the version published with The Proof and The Third Lie and liked The Notebook so much that I read all three novels that comprise a trilogy of stories about the twins Lucas and Claus. Of all three I think The Notebook is my favourite, but all three novels speak of fractured lives and identities whose loves transgress social conventions, conventions often challenged and changed by war and its ever shifting allegiances. Who are we? Are we bound to the country of our birth? Are we tied to those whose blood we share?

The two brothers are divided during the war, whichever novel you read and whichever plotline you believe. This division, this separation is unbearable and makes life a constant battle fought solely for envisaged reconciliation. This makes The Third Lie particularly hard to read.

It is not hard to miss the historical and political narratives beneath the tales, but nor is it easy to decipher any form of truth not turned by the storyteller’s wheel. The literary oral history of forest and fairy-tale, of epic journeys and miraculous recovery, of transformation and shape-shifting flow fluidly through the lives of the twins making their struggles ache with metaphorical and mythical parallels despite the carefully simple prose. This is stark and potent writing so good it feels as if I’ve read it already and I now know that what may have impressed me in other writing is partly Kristof’s influential echo.

The twins’ description of what work gets written into the notebook they are writing is wonderfully telling. What gets into the notebook must be considered ‘Good’:

‘To decide whether it’s “Good” or “Not good,” we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true. We must describe what is, what we see, what we hear, what we do.

‘For example, it is forbidden to write, “Grandmother is like a witch”; but we are allowed to write, “People call Grandmother the Witch.” …

‘Words that define feelings are very vague. It is better to avoid using them and stick to the description of objects, human beings, and oneself, that is to say, to the faithful description of the facts.’ (p29)

The twins observe life with a fearless, fanatical fervour that sees life and human behaviour without sentiment giving us a picture of the world that doesn’t edit out the unseemly, unpleasant or unconventional. This is truly inspiring, galling work.

Having said that, it’s true that these novels are not for everyone. They don’t make for easy reading, in the sense that they cover difficult topics of war, betrayal and a kind of survivalist cruelty, but they are honest and they are important for anyone hoping to grasp a sense of contemporary European fiction.

Next week I’m reading Tenth of December by George Saunders.