The most exciting literary release of the season is the new novel by Iraqi-born writer Hassan Blasim, My Life in the Ghosts of Bush. Its publication seems well timed, coinciding as it does with the release of the ghoulish CIA “Torture Report” that returns us to the darkest days of the so-called war on terror. Known for graphically violent and fantastical short stories about his war-torn homeland, Blasim won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize this year for his latest collection of tales, The Iraqi Christ. A first novel from a writer of note is usually a major event, but this one’s release has been entirely overlooked. Why? The author and the publisher have made no comments. Only the book itself can help us solve the puzzle.
The author scored a coup with his playful title, which evokes a classic work of postcolonial literature. The reference is apt, as the novel’s themes of war, cultural dislocation, dreams and nightmares are similar in many respects to Amos Tutuola’s weird, hypnotic My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. But the title may be proving a liability; some bookstore customers have likely mistaken the new book for Tutuola’s, since it sports that book’s cover design as well as its distinctive typography. Others hurriedly skimming volumes on display may have missed the transposition of two words in the title, or, fearing an onset of dyslexia, moved on to browse elsewhere. Moreover, the cover bears the name of an unknown author. This has led some critics to believe the novel is in fact the work of a secretive “Hasim Bassan.” But that moniker is surely a thinly-veiled pseudonym; “Hasim Bassan,” after all, is a near anagram of Blasim’s own name.
The novel’s plot follows the fortunes of eleven Iraqis who all happen to be killed on the same day, so many “ghosts of Bush” resulting from the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Readers of Blasim’s short stories will recognize some familiar motifs here: torture and terror; the telling of stories and the unreliability of narrative; rumor, mystification and media manipulation; the tragedy of occupation and the horrors of internecine war. But My Life in the Ghosts of Bush is unlike anything by Hassan Blasim. Paradoxically enough, the book’s greatest originality lies in its practice of borrowing, citing and sampling from other works of art.
The opening chapter tells of how the character Ali became separated from his shadow during the US invasion in 2003; later the two meet up again on the street like old friends in the midst of Baghdad’s sectarian killings. The pair fall to speaking nostalgically of their fishing days, and on the spur of the moment decide to brave the dangers of the battle-zones to go back to their former haunts on the banks of the Tigris. Ali’s shadow says he knows one of the sentries at the border between two warring neighborhoods, and so the two are able to pass and get to their favorite fishing spot by the river. Soon they are happily catching fish like in the good old days, unaware they are watched by a gang of killers, who, suspecting them of being spies, sneak up and deliver them to their militia leader. Ali is made to face the firing squad, and in his final moments he confusedly sees his companion for the last time.
Just then Ali’s eye fell on the bucket of carp sitting on the ground nearby. The pile of fish, which were still wriggling, glistened in a ray of sunshine. Was that his own shadow on their shimmering scales? He felt a momentary weakness. Try as he might, Ali couldn’t hold back his stinging tears (23).
Some readers will recognize “Ali and his Shadow” as an adaptation of Maupassant’s “Two Friends,” a story itself situated in a time of foreign occupation (Paris during the Franco-Prussian war). So, curiously enough, the Iraqi short story writer borrowed a short story to write his first novel. Indeed, sticklers might argue that Blasim hasn’t written a novel at all; My Life in the Ghosts of Bush consists entirely of this single borrowed narrative, told chapter by chapter from the posthumous viewpoint of each character mentioned: Ali, the sentry, the death squad men and their leader. By the end of each chapter that character is killed. But what of Ali’s shadow, Blasim’s ingenious addition to Maupassant’s tale? We leave it to the reader to find out. The shadow weaves its way through each story, with results by turns haunting and hilarious.
Like Ali’s shadow, other narrative details are woven like continuous threads the length of the book. Identical phrases reappear in various contexts, spoken by different characters; snatches of the same radio broadcast are heard over and over. “America is waiting for a message of some sort,” blares the radio from a sinister Blackwater Humvee parked by the Green Zone, words overheard first by Ali and later by characters in each subsequent chapter. Few novels have used techniques of repetition to such remarkable effect. The reason for this unusual narrative structure is that Blasim has apparently organized the chapters of his book according to the eleven music tracks of Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.
On the face of it, this organizational choice may seem random and capricious, but Blasim’s use of the musical material proves otherwise. Eno and Byrne’s experimental record of 1981 opens with the groundbreaking electronic track “America is Waiting” — the words are sampled from a radio talk show — and includes four other tracks featuring Arab singers from whom Blasim amply quotes. The author makes particularly good use of “Qu’ran,” which features Algerian voices chanting over Eno and Byrne’s rhythmic electronica, a track that was notably cut from later editions of the record following accusations of blasphemy. Lyrics from the Lebanese singers Dunya Yusin and Samira Tewfik appear in each chapter; sung by Ali and his shadow as they sit fishing, they are overheard by their future captors, who repeat them afterward in different scenes and to different effect. Likewise, Blasim echoes the West African percussion featured in several tracks on Eno and Byrne’s record in order to weave elements of Tutuola’s dreamscapes into his own multilayered plots. Blasim’s use of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts provides a subversive counterpoint to the infamous “torture playlist” used by “depraved” jailers and their US superiors in Iraq. But it may take a team of musicologists to unravel the deeper and more intricate ties between the music and the novel’s formal elements of syntax, punctuation, diction and prosody.
In one amazing scene from chapter 5, a member of Ali’s firing squad is sent on a mission and is unexpectedly stopped at the checkpoint of a rival sect. Asked for the password by an armed sentry, the man balks, believes himself to be at death’s door, and sings under his breath a line from Samira Tewfik’s song in consolation. That line in fact proves to be the password; the killer is allowed to pass and dizzily exults in his reprieve from death; music fills his ears as he enters the neighborhood, mixes with the lively throngs of people, and seeks out the thickest crowd where he detonates his belt of explosives. The episode provides an occasion for Blasim’s signature black humor.
Consider the horror of bodily dismemberment from the point of view of the victim’s shadow. Never in its dutiful service has it needed to choose between head and heart or between the bulk of the torso and a fragment of pinkie on some passerby’s keffiya. But such is the shadow’s lot once it is blown apart, smashed like an achromatic kaleidoscope, its grays and blacks orphaned now, homeless and scattered across this land of pitiless sun (108).
Ghosts cast no shadow, and the voice that speaks these lines is as disembodied and unlocatable as a sampled sound clip from Eno and Byrne. Can a writer perform a similar disappearing act? Maybe the author of My Life in the Ghosts of Bush has attempted the impossible in playing ghost-writer to his own novel.
“Hasim Bassan,” My Life in the Ghosts of Bush (2014).