‘Jokes for the Gunmen’ by Mazen Maarouf (Review – MBIP 2019, Number 13)

After a bizarre interlude somewhere in the Chinese hinterland, we’ve almost come to the end of our epic Man Booker International Prize journey, yet our final visit may well prove to be the most dangerous of all.  Today sees us venture into the war-torn streets of the Middle East, where people keep an eye open (real or glass…) for danger as they go about their daily business.  As you’ll discover, though, they’re surprisingly upbeat as they do so.  When times are this hard, there’s nothing to do but look on the bright side of life…

*****
Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf
– Granta Books, translated by Jonathan Wright
(Review copy courtesy of the publisher)
What’s it all about?
While most bios label Mazen Maarouf a Palestinian-Icelandic writer, he was born and raised in Beiruit, and the stories in Jokes for the Gunmen provide an insight into life in Lebanon in a turbulent era.  Death is ever-present, but conflict tends to stay in the background here, with most of the pieces in Maarouf’s debut collection focusing on the lives of ordinary people, showing slices of life in a city where there’s no point in worrying about violence you can do little about, anyway.  The main way they deal with all of this is humour, and most of the pieces here will evoke a wry smile, either from the slapstick comedy portrayed or the upbeat nature of their protagonists.

The collection is dominated by the title piece, a forty-page story divided into ten short chapters and narrated by a young boy whose father is regularly beaten by the gunmen ‘protecting’ their neighbourhood.  Ashamed at this humiliation, the child racks his brains for a way to help him until he one day comes upon the perfect solution, inspired by a man selling sahlah (a sweet dessert) at his school:

He didn’t answer, so I raised my voice and said, “Tell me, the gunmen – the gunmen who stand at the end of the street – have they ever beaten you up?”  He shook his head without looking at me.  When I saw his response, I felt a great happiness.  “Thank you,” I told him, assuming that this was definitely something to do with his missing eye.”
‘Jokes for the Gunmen’, p.13 (Granta Books, 2018)

Having discovered this secret, he now formulates his plan.  If he manages to get his father a glass eye, then the beatings will surely stop…

‘Jokes for the Gunmen’ is an amusing, yet pathetic tale of a boy growing up in extraordinary circumstances, trying to make sense of what can’t be understood.  His immaturity means he doesn’t actually realise why the glass eye might be a sort of talisman, instead believing that all will be well once he gets one for his father.  In the meantime, he looks for stop-gap solutions to prevent the beatings – including jokes for his father to entertain the gunmen with.

Many readers will undoubtedly compare the book with Hassan Blasim’s Independent-Foreign-Fiction-Prize-winning collection The Iraqi Christ, and the comparisons are certainly apt in places, particularly when it comes to some of the more surreal stories.  In ‘The Angel of Death’, a man who gave up smiling at the tender age of four tells of his bizarre talent, the ability to kill a man with a mere joke, while ‘Biscuits’ has its narrator spin a tale of an old man on the highway, turning passing cars into, well, biscuits.  Perhaps the most bizarre of these, though is ‘Other-People’s-Dreams Syndrome’, where a man talks about a friend who every night plays a minor role in the dreams of neighbours, acquaintances and strangers, some of which are rather unsavoury.

Perhaps the best of these bizarre stories is ‘Cinema’, in which a young boy is hiding from bombs with his family and other scared locals.  After a blast opens a hole in the wall, the boy loses contact with the others in the cinema, but he gains a new friend:

On the morning of the next day I saw the cow.  I was still sitting in the seat and the cow walked through the projection room.  It stopped for a few moments.  It lowered its head and looked at me through the rectangular hole and then continued on its way.  The cow was big and beautiful.
‘Cinema’, pp.71/2

The boy eventually decides to follow this unexpected visitor, taking us on a journey through bombed streets with a cow, a soldier and copious amounts of processed cheese (seriously).

While the stronger stories are interesting, though, there are several short pieces here which feel slight by comparison, even if they can be entertaining.  ‘Curtain’, a short tale of a young couple and a voyeuristic dwarf, is in no danger of outstaying its welcome, and the final piece, ‘Juan and Ausa’, a strange story of blood ties between humans and bulls, is a fairly weak way to round the collection off.  Even when these stories are a little heavier, as is the case in ‘Portion of Jam’, the impact of the shot that changes the characters’ fate is softened by the swift move onto the next piece.

Jokes for the Gunmen is at its best when Maarouf extends his stories and manages to blend the dark humour with descriptions of what’s happening in the outside world.  A good example here is ‘Gramophone’, where a man providing entertainment in a basement bar is one of the few survivors after a bomb blast.  Reminded of the tragedy by the handle of the gramophone found in the rubble, the man’s son lives a life of guilt, wishing he could do something to ease his father’s pain.  But what if there was a way to help the old man out?  As you might have guessed (and as is usually the case in these stories), in times of conflict, there’s unlikely to be a happy ending…

Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
I feel a little mean saying it, but Jokes for the Gunmen is one of the weaker inclusions on the list, and it was never really in the running for our shortlist.  In truth, it feels like a collection of short pieces quickly gathered together to supplement the main event, the excellent long story/short novella that lends the book its name.  Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, or that it’s not worth reading – there’s a lot to like about Maarouf’s work, but as a whole it can’t be compared to the best books on the longlist.

Why didn’t it make the (official) shortlist?
In addition to the ideas above, I can’t have been the only one to have immediately thought on seeing the longlist that with two Arabic-language books selected, one would make it onto the shortlist.  That’s exactly what happened, and in a straight contest between Jokes for the Gunmen and Celestial Bodies, there was only ever going to be one winner…

*****
And that’s it – after thirteen literary trips around the world, our 2019 MBIP journey is complete!

Almost… You see, there’s still the small matter of actually awarding the prize, and that will happen on the evening (I presume) of the 21st of May, at a big swanky ceremony in London.  Meanwhile, the Shadow Panel will soon reconvene to put our selected shortlisters through their paces, in preparation for selecting a winner, to be made public on the morning of the official announcement.  So who will we choose as our 2019 Shadow Laureate?  Well, you’ll just have to wait and see.  Until then, so long – and we hope you’ve enjoyed the journey 🙂

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