War Stories: Hassan Blasim and Ben Fountain

Hassan Blasim, The Madman of Freedom Square (2009)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)

One thing I feel I ought to do more often as a reader and reviewer is engage with the issues; I tend to think more about how novels and stories work as pieces of fiction, and park the issues they deal with to one side. I probably shouldn’t do that, and certainly couldn’t do that with the stories in the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim’s collection, The Madman of Freedom Square (translated by Jonathan Wright), because they’re all about how stories shape people’s experiences of war and its consequences.

The opening piece, ‘The Reality and the Record’, illustrates what I mean. After a scene-setting introduction – which explains that refugees arriving at reception centres have the stories they tell to gain asylum, and the stories they keep to themselves, the ones about what really happened to them – we launch into the main body of the story, an account given to a Swedish immigration official by an Iraqi refugee. Our narrator tells how he was kidnapped from his work as an ambulance driver, and forced to appear in a video claiming to be a member of the Iraqi army. He describes how, over the subsequent months and years, he was kept in captivity, sold from group to group, and placed in front of a camera innumerable times, to play all manner of roles.

Stories upon stories upon stories – not just all these fake videos, but the refugee’s account itself, because who would believe such an outlandish tale? Generally speaking, I’d read something like ‘The Reality and the Record’ and praise its aesthetics in using story, the way it resists a definitive interpretation… I can still do these things, but I can’t ignore the emotional impact of Blasim’s portrayal of war as a maze of realities in which a person can so easily become lost. The narrator of the tale’s frame comments at the end that ‘the ambulance driver summed up his real story in four words: “I want to sleep,”’ p.11); those four words say so much.

Elsewhere in The Madman of Freedom Square, we see more characters being damaged and destroyed by war, stories, or both. The narrator of the title story refused to believe tales of two young blond men who left good fortune in their wake, until he was wounded in an explosion and apparently rescued by them; Blasim shows how blurred the line between sanity and delusion may be, and the final sentences are especially chilling. ‘The Truck to Berlin’ is another tale which layers hearsay upon anecdote in depicting what happens to a group of Iraqi men who pay to be smuggled out of the country; in the darkness of the truck, they don’t know what’s happening, or even if they’re actually heading to Berlin as promised – the conclusion is both brutal and powerful.

Dedicated ‘to the Dead of the Iran-Iraq War’, ‘An Army Newspaper’ revolves around a fairly straightforward – but nonetheless effective – metaphor. The now-deceased editor of an army newspaper’s cultural page narrates how he received anonymously-authored exercise books containing the stories of soldiers, and published them – to great acclaim – under his own name. But the books kept coming, until he was besieged. At the story’s close, the editor cries out to the writer who has temporarily brought him back to life, ‘why do you need an incinerator for your characters?’ (p.20). That’s just one example of how Blasim brings home the stark realities of war. Not all the stories in The Madman of Freedom Square are as successful, but the best pieces alone make the book worth buying. I’m very grateful to M. Lynx Qualey of the ArabLit blog for bringing Blasim’s work to my attention.

***

A new novel of the Iraq war comes from US author Ben Fountain, a debut novelist in his fifties. Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is the star of ‘Bravo squad’, who became the toast of America after an embedded Fox News crew filmed them winning a firefight against Iraqi insurgents, and the video went viral. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is set on the final day of the soldiers’ ‘Victory Tour’ organised by the government, when they will be guests of honour at a Thanksgiving Day football game in Texas, before returning to Iraq.

Fountain’s main subject could be summed up, I think, as the gap between the reality of the soldiers’ experiences at war, and perceptions of them at home – it’s all about stories again. The people he meets on the Victory Tour treat Billy like a hero:

They want autographs. They want cell phone snaps. They say thank you over and over and with growing fervor, they know they’re being good when they thank the troops and their eyes shimmer with love for themselves and this tangible proof of their goodness (pp. 39-40).

But for Billy, what he did on that day in Iraq was – well, just something he had to do:

Billy did not seek the heroic deed, no. The deed came for him, and what he dreads like a cancer in his brain is that the deed will seek him out again (p. 40).

Already, new realities are being woven around those three minutes in the life of Bravo squad. Technically, even the name ‘Bravo squad’ is incorrect, but that’s what they’ve been dubbed by the media, and so that is who they now are. Movie rights are being negotiated: Hilary Swank is interested in playing Billy, and the fact she’s a woman is irrelevant in the face of a possible film deal. So, the boys of Bravo are losing control of their destiny, but they’re used to it: ‘manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher?’ (p. 28)

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is one of those books which I had to keep stopping reading to make note of something interesting; I don’t find myself doing that as often as I’d like. I’m still left with a nagging sense, though, that the plot of Billy Lynn is not quite enough to support a novel of this length – but there is a nicely-done sub-plot in which Billy falls for a cheerleader at the stadium, which has the uncertainty and awkwardness of a teenage crush that begins suddenly but may not have the chance to last.

But it’s Fountain’s prose to which I keep returning. One of my favourite sections in the novel comes when Bravo squad are introduced to the footballers and Billy sees behind the scenes: there’s a clear contrast drawn between these enormous men with all facilities on hand, and the soldiers of Bravo squad. As his Victory Tour comes to an end, Billy reflects on the implications of the discrepancy between the image and reality of war:

For the past two weeks he’s been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force…Their reality dominates, except for this: It can’t save you. It won’t stop any bombs or bullets (p. 306).

Whether in Fountain’s novel or Blasim’s collection, the stories win – and, so often, it’s the characters who lose.

Links

The Madman of Freedom Square
Hassan Blasim’s website
The publisher, Comma Press.
Interview with Blasim at The Short Review.
Some other reviews: A Year of Reading the World; Mithran Somasundrum for The Short Review; M. Lynx Qualey for The Quarterly Conversation; Alan Whelan for Lancashire Writing Hub.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Interview with Ben Fountain in The Scotsman.
The publisher, Canongate Books.
Some other reviews: Naomi Frisby for Bookmunch; Bite the Book; Boston Bibliophile; Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

4 Comments

  1. I have to agree with everything you say about Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. I’ve just posted my own review of it. My only real criticism is that Fountain doesn’t really have more than one point to make which you summarise perfectly: “the gap between the reality of the soldiers’ experiences at war, and perceptions of them at home.” I think we could have lost 100 pages and the work wouldn’t have suffered. That said, as you say, his prose is a real pleasure to read. Hardly a page passed me by without me seeing something I wanted to share in my review. I’d happily read him again.

  2. David Hebblethwaite

    12th July 2012 at 10:58 am

    JIm, I think you’re right Fountain really only has the one point – but it sounds as though we’re both prepared to let him off because he makes it so well. I’ll be interested to see what he writes next.

  3. David

    These reviews look very relevant to LWH. Please send me a Word document or pdf with the reviews and I will post them in the appropriate section of the LWH web site. Incidentally these books are on a similar theme to Zoe Lambert’s excellent War Tour; have you read that? There is a review on the site.

    Regards

    John D Rutter

  4. David Hebblethwaite

    14th July 2012 at 5:21 pm

    John, thanks for your comment. I’ll contact you privately about the review. The War Tour is on my TBR pile,and I nearly read it to go with these two – but I thought the post was long enough as it was!

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