A population in dire need of collective psychiatric counselling – that's how brutalised the Iraqis seem in Hassan Blasim's debut short-story collection. "This neighbourhood was surely just a vast mental hospital," one character says. Indeed, madness in varying forms colours this slim volume, which spans the Iran-Iraq war through to the present occupation.
While using familiar scenarios such as hostage-taking, suicide-bombing, exile, Blasim pitches everyday horror into something almost gothic. A werewolf bursts gorily from a lorry of trafficked migrants; a soldier, trapped in a sealed room, eats his dead sweetheart. "The world is very fragile, frightening and inhumane," the author writes. "All it needs is a little shake for its hideous nature and its primeval fangs to emerge."
Narrators retell tales with a mixture of truth and myth-making. Blasim's taste for the surreal can be Gogol-like. In "An Army Newspaper", a former arts editor – dug up from the mortuary – describes how he received brilliant stories written by a soldier. When the soldier died he published them, pretending they were his own. Despite the soldier's death, every morning the stories kept arriving. In desperation, the narrator builds a huge incinerator to destroy them and, it seems, himself.
The title story sees a poor district transformed by the benign presence of two blond young men. Are they angels? Only an insane person would believe that, surely? And someone might become crazed if they thought they could lead a new life away from the turmoil of Iraq. Settled in Holland, Salim Abdul Husain in "The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes" is a model immigrant. He can escape everything except his dreams.
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. Perhaps, like the writer-narrator in "Ali's Bag", Blasim is just trying "to express... anger and interest in human terror at the same time".