Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.
AN ex-economics professor and a black market thug in Baghdad ‘inherit’ a high-profile ex-torturer from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussain’s now defunct regime. “We should kill him,” says Kinza, the thug, to Dagr, the ex-professor, “but nothing too orthodox”. Captain Hamid had been the “chief savant of interrogators … the star striker on the torture pitch,” and though Kinza and Dagr believe he deserves to die, they also believe he is the only living person who knows the secret location of a bunker full of gold, hidden somewhere outside Baghdad.
So what do you do, when the world around you is being blown up systematically in the name of ‘nation building’, when your family have become ‘collateral damage’ in the search for the infamous ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ and when you have nothing left at all? Well, if you’re Kinza and Dagr, you follow the madness into Mosul to search for the gold, and you try not to get tripped up by Private Hoffman, the stoner soldier who has found a watch that seems to keep some sort of mysterious rhythm that isn’t time.
While the world crashes down around the ears of this motley crew, other, further strange things happen — an absurdly mysterious, dangerous and invincible vigilante called the Lion of Akkad comes their way, possibly in connection with a strange sect, there are possibly jinns in clay urns watched over by some three weird sisters, and an infuriatingly secret history. Meanwhile, a man is creating monsters, experimenting on humans to try and achieve something no one else ever has. He may have the most desired secret of all — immortality Dhaka native Saad Hossain’s Escape from Baghdad! is a welcome, refreshing novel, a genuinely original voice entering the world of subcontinental literature in English. Set in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war, Escape from Baghdad! is more than a pulp war novel: it is that too, but it is also a smart, relevant look at a war that defined an entire generation. It’s a very contemporary thriller, though one that holds mythology close to its heart.
“I am primarily a fantasy and sci-fi writer, and those elements will always be present in whatever genre I’m working in,” explains Hossain. “Mythology is a powerful tool to add layers of complexity to a story, and I am heavily reliant on some of those fantasy elements to help convey an impression of chaos, secret histories, of hidden forces at work. This is also what [who] I love to read, authors like Neal Stephenson, or William Gibson, who combine elements of different genres; I just think it makes everything a lot more interesting. Part of the magic of books is that they can take you very far away from a mundane physical world, yet still convey reality in a meaningful sense.”
With Escape from Baghdad! Hossain does (successfully) what writers like Kurt Vonnegut did with Slaughterhouse Five, what Joseph Heller did with Catch-22: it looks at the sheer madness and cruelty of war under the lens of absurdity and chaos theory. It makes a point of acknowledging the absolute horror of war but it does so with a gallows humour that is entertaining and often camp. Stylistically it’s pulp — a full-throttle gonzo style tells a truth that many don’t want to hear: an important, relevant truth but one that isn’t ever pedantic. The gonzo style, while best known as employed by writers like Hunter S. Thompson, is particularly suited to war literature “if you’re trying to poke holes into the normal hero-versus-villain narrative,” says Hossain. “Also, it’s fun to write and hopefully it’s fun to read. Entertaining oneself as well as the reader is the primary reason for writing novels anyway,” he adds. And Escape from Baghdad! is nothing if not entertaining.
But Hossain has set his story in Baghdad, and it’s very much focused on the Iraq war — he obviously also making a political statement. There is plenty of commentary on world politics and on the US’s stance on Iraq in particular so I ask him if it is even possible to be a writer of contemporary fiction and avoid politics? “It’s ok to write straightforward genre fiction to entertain readers,” says Hossain. “Quality writing should not be dismissed because it doesn’t attempt to change the world. Personally, there a lot of things I want to say, and I will always try to get my views across through fiction, although I wouldn’t sacrifice the internal logic of the plot or the characters for the sake of political commentary. The subtlety of that commentary will improve hopefully, if I mature and get better at writing.” Of course, that is not to say Hossain isn’t good at it already — this is an assured debut, surprisingly so, given the nature of the narrative.
Escape from Baghdad! is hilarious, vicious and smart, and does not hold back from lashing out when it needs to. It revels in the absurdity of life in modern wartime but it is also realistic — it isn’t hard to believe that things probably were this insane at that time in Iraq. Hossain’s research included reading the blogs of young American soldiers deployed in Baghdad who wrote about what was happening to and around them; the madness as seen from the inside.
This is a violent, loud book, full of explosions and gruesome murder, horror of every sort — of the invasion, of the bombs so visceral and terrible, and of the trauma to the locals who lost everything they have loved and known: families gone, libraries and histories wiped out. And the trauma to the young soldiers, some not yet recovered from PTSD, some carrying wounds that have not healed — constant pain, a blinded eye — all still in the field, half-mad with grief; some confused and wanting to go home, some, remaining relentless in their missions, violent and aggressive.
There are no good or bad characters here — even the vigilante we all start off being afraid of is more than just a villain — if he is a villain at all. Hossain isn’t interested in divides of good and evil, he’s interested in human beings being human: broken and flawed and complex and fascinating. If there’s one weakness in the book it’s that there aren’t any well-developed or nuanced female characters. There is one who has an important role to play but she is, essentially, a noir vamp, an Iraqi femme fatale. The other female characters are a trio of weird sisters — weird in the mythical sense, and important to the narrative but barely registering on the character scale in terms of development. It would have been fascinating to have met them earlier, or heard their backstories but then this novel isn’t theirs: it’s Kinza’s and Dagr’s and Hamid’s and Hoffman’s. Escape from Baghdad! remains a unique, highly-entertaining and intelligent read from a writer who isn’t afraid to be larger than life.
Of course, the very existence of good genre fiction from the subcontinent is exciting in itself. As to where it’s headed, Hossain is nothing but positive: “It can only grow. Genre fiction is the lifeblood of the reading habit, the bread-and-butter for publishers worldwide, and the fiscal foundation on which they are able to bring out their ‘literary’ titles. If the art of writing novels is to survive, it has to compete with other forms of entertainment. Bangladesh is a very literary country, with a huge reading public, and I think as more and more kids switch to English, we will eventually become a very big marketplace for mainstream publishers.”