by Alison Flood)
Exiled Iraqi author Hassan Blasim's portrayal of his country as a "surrealist inferno" in his short story collection The Iraqi Christ has won the author the Independent foreign fiction prize.
Blasim, a poet, filmmaker and short story writer, is the first Arab writer to win the award in its 24-year history – and the only author ever to win the prize with a novel that is yet to be published in its original language due to censorship concerns. The Iraqi Christ is Blasim's second short story collection and is, said judge and Independent literary editor Boyd Tonkin, "a classic work of postwar witness, mourning and revolt". It beat titles including Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard's hit A Man in Love, and Birgit Vanderbeke's classic German debut The Mussel Feast, to take the £10,000 prize, which is shared equally with Blasim's translator Jonathan Wright.
The 14 stories of The Iraqi Christ give a glimpse – "unforgettable and often harrowing", said the Independent award – into modern Iraq, and are written as a mix of reportage, memoir and dark fantasy in settings from the desert to the forest.
Born in Baghdad, Blasim draws from his own life for his fiction. He left the city in 1998 for Sulaymaniya, where he continued to make films that were critical of Saddam Hussein under a Kurdish pseudonym. The author fled Iraq in 2000 to avoid persecution, travelling as an illegal migrant for four years until finally settling in Finland.
Despite the acclaim with which it has been received in the UK and the US – the Guardian called Blasim "perhaps the best writer of Arabic fiction alive" – The Iraqi Christ has yet to be released in Arabic. Blasim's previous book The Madman of Freedom Square was published as a censored version in Arabic three years after its original English publication in 2009, but was still banned in Jordan and other Arab countries, according to the prize's organisers.
Blasim said he planned to release The Iraqi Christ in Arabic as a free ebook to counter efforts to censor it. "I don't want what happened to The Madman to happen to this one," he said. "So I'm going to put it on the internet for free."
The author expressed the hope that his win would help pave the way for other Iraqi writers to be published in the west. "It is great, and I hope it is good for Iraqi literature," he said. "That it gets to open some doors for other books to make their way into the west."
His editor, Ra Page, at tiny independent Comma Press said that the moment he saw a story by Blasim, in 2008, he knew "this was writing unlike anything I'd ever read before", and set out to commission him for a whole book.
"He made me realise I didn't know a thing about the Iraq war, that instead of reading countless columns and articles, it was like I'd never read a single word," said Page. "He exposed how self-regarding and self-obsessed our own war journalism can be."
Page called Blasim's writing style "very strange, very shocking, barbed and broken", and said The Iraqi Christ was "a book about the refugee experience, which is not covered in contemporary literature at all, but which also stands on its own in terms of the quality of the writing".
Tonkin said Blasim stood out among Iraqi writers "for his fearless candour and rule-busting artistry". The 14 stories of The Iraqi Christ, said Tonkin, are "often surreal in style but always rooted in heart-breaking truth", and "depict this pitiless era with deep compassion, pitch-black humour and a visionary yearning for another, better life".
Wright's translations, meanwhile, capture "all of their passion, their desperation and their soaring imaginative energy," said Tonkin, who was joined on the judging panel by Alev Adil, Natalie Haynes, Nadifa Mohamed and Shaun Whiteside.
The Iraqi Christ is also the first short story collection ever to win the Independent prize, taken in the past by novels from authors including Milan Kundera, WG Sebald and Per Petterson. It is the latest triumph for short stories in a year that has seen Alice Munro take the Nobel, and George Saunders win the Folio prize.