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closing his eyes

7 september 2021

The very first story in Luay Hamza Abbas' Closing His Eyes (after a brief prologue) is just one page long, but sets the tone for the volume. In "A Call," a man is reading about somebody eating fava beans and is inspired to go out and buy a can of fava beans. He starts to cook them. Somebody calls on the phone, asking if a neighbor is OK; the man suddenly realizes that the neighbor probably isn't. The fava beans start to boil over.

The idiom is realistic; the scene is verisimilar; but something isn't right, something's off, and what's off remains unexplained. In the next story, "A Blood Drop to Discover the Body," a middle-aged man's business takes him to a succession of hotel rooms where he becomes grudgingly aware of a body he'd seemed to elide for years previously. His self-alienation has something to do with an aunt who'd disappeared and a war he prefers not to remember in strictly expository terms. "The Lens" is similarly oblique: we see a murder, in hideous detail, but we don't know anything about the victim or why he/s been killed; the image that matters is the broken lens of the victim's brother's eyeglasses.

In "Near the British School," a man dreams about an enormous high-rise with a diverse population, an unattainable top floor, and a dubious elevator. An allegory for his nation? That seems an obvious interpretation, but at the same time the man lives in a real building with specific non-allegorical problems: a lumpy mattress, enigmatic neighbors. Dreams seem the more haunting when they work themselves into prosaic waking reality. "Descending in the Dark" is more literal: a plumber shows up to do a dark and messy repair. Things seem superficially under control, but one of the plumber's teeth is covered by a trickle of blood … but the story goes no further; it's only one page long.

"Closing His Eyes" merits being the title story of this collection. It works on both realistic and emblematic levels. Stressed by his public-service job and the tension that pervades his community, the protagonist likes to cycle to work and coast along, when possible, with his eyes closed. Shutting himself off becomes a habit – and then he witnesses an atrocity, and shutting himself off becomes an imperative.

Later in the collection, in the resourceful and varied English prose of translator Yasmeen Hanoosh, the stories grow longer – which is to say, from a page or two, to three or four pages – and begin to read more like compressed novels, or perhaps novels from which everything has been worn away except a dim memory, not of the plot, but of the most salient scenes. "Face Washing" and "Spit Out What Is in Your Mouth" are in this category, stories of male protagonists trapped in cityscapes where life has been made impossible by war, trying to hold onto images from a saner "before." "Red Ali," another longer story, has more of a "short-story" feel to it, if that makes sense, the story of how the narrator identifies a dead body that belongs to a character from his own "before," an innocent ground up and destroyed by relentless violence. "No Visits for Strangers," the longest of all, closes the volume. It seems a kind of framework for the telling of the others, shifting from specifics about the author's home city of Basra to the mere outlines of contacts with other characters and situations.

Such a fictional method may not be for everybody; if you like names, CVs, capsule backstories, and strict chronologies, you may hate it. Nor does Abbas' method work equally well in all these stories; some lack a unified construction (deliberately, as they try to disorient and destabilize the reader) and some dissolve into catalogs of impressions. But at their best, as in the title piece "Closing His Eyes," these are harrowing and magical stories.

Abbas, Luay Hamza. Closing His Eyes. Translated by Yasmeen Hanoosh. London: Moment, 2013.