Review: Jokes for the Gunmen

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Palestinian-Icelandic writer, poet, translator, and journalist Mazen Maarouf has written a strange and unsettling collection of twelve short stories. It’s called Jokes for the Gunmen. Although originally written in Arabic, it’s been translated into English by Jonathan Wright and published by Granta Books this year. Many of the stories show how the human psyche can become twisted and distorted during wartime. “I was known as ‘the grasshopper’ on the grounds that my father was also a grasshopper, since grasshoppers always jump and never attack.”

This quote is taken from the titular story, “Jokes for the Gunmen.” It’s also the longest in the book, divided into ten short chapters. In this story, when the boy notices that his father is constantly being belittled and beaten up by wartime thugs, he embarks on a mission to earn his father some street cred by getting him fitted with a glass eye like the sahlab seller who no one hassles.

“Matador” is another strange concoction about a boy’s uncle who dreams of becoming a matador in Spain but who can’t even get a visa to go there and beats cows (sometimes to death) at the slaughter house instead. The uncle dies three times only to find that his matador suit can no longer fit him, which adds to the story’s sense of the pathos, unpredictability, and absurdity of life.

“Aquarium” is perhaps the most surreal and most heart-rending of all. A young couple name and keep a blood clot (probably a fetus or not) in an aquarium much to the chagrin of everyone around them.

Many of the stories end abruptly and may leave you scratching your head. However, I think it’s the writer’s intention in these stories to underline the absurdity of war and to reveal how civilians adapt to the weirdness of their wartime living situation.

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