I was so eager to get started on this next novel that I made it my first non-Kindle read in quite some time. Written by Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi, it was originally published in 2013 and went on to win the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The English translation came out in January of this year and was released to a good amount of critical acclaim.
Set a few years after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and told from the overlapping perspectives of its diverse cast of characters, this is the story of how a truck bomb exploding in Baghdad’s Tarayan Square begins an extraordinary chain of events in these people’s lives. It is from this tragedy that Hadi, a nearly impoverished junk trader, finds what he needs to complete his prized project: a human nose. For the past several months he has been covertly collecting body parts from bomb scenes and sewing them together in the hope that he can assemble a complete corpse that can get buried with dignity. His plan, however, takes an unexpected turn when the newly completed corpse goes missing and a wave of brutal murders begin occurring in the surrounding neighborhoods.
I found this book to be thoroughly enchanting and a real joy to read. The creature was a fascinating character that offered both a window into the hopes and fears of the Iraqi people and a statement on the madness of country’s internal conflicts. More than anything this was a book about the average person’s struggle to find stability, and perhaps even some measure of success, amidst the constant violence and disorder of their everyday lives. As such, it was the human characters who were the real stars here. People of particular note beyond Hadi include Elishva, an elderly Assyrian Christian widow longing for her missing son; Aziz the Egyptian, the owner of a local coffee shop and resident gossip; and Mahmoud al-Sawadi, an ambitious young journalist and rising star at al-Haqiqa magazine. They collectively provide a gripping charisma and energy that brought the book to life and engulfed me in a world that combined the magical realism and ambiance of a Murakami novel with the grit of a war story.
This is probably my favorite book of the year so far and one that I highly to recommend to fans of all genres (with disclaimers about gore and violence). Mysterious and thought-provoking throughout, this story was a captivating read that put a very human face on a country a lot of people may not think about much beyond the violence that makes the news.