Jokes for the Gunmen is simultaneously the title of the book, the title of its opening (and longest) story, and the theme of the entire collection. Having been born as the son of Palestinian refugees and grown up in a city and country torn apart by war and civil unrest, Mazen Maarouf is no stranger to suffering and what it can do to the human soul. He also knows that, while at times it is important to demonstrate and decry the horrors and evils of war, it is also sometimes worth laughing in the face of it. This stunning collection of short stories does both of those things in equal part, and with immeasurable impact, tlling stories of people living at the edge of a warzone, people hiding from the enemy, and people trying to find things to laugh about in the face of tragedy.
‘We could hear gunfire from time to time, but we grew used to it, as one grows used to the honking of passing cars.’
Dulce et Decorum est
Since leaving the teaching profession for poetry writing, Mazen Maarouf has had several books of poetry published and, after moving to Reykjavik, he has now produced his first collection of short stories. Jokes for the Gunmen escapes simple description. Each tale is unique, but a thread weaves its way through every one: strangeness.Some of the tales in this collection hit hard, and others leave the reader scratching her or his head. A few hit like an abrupt punchline. Whatever the tone, most stories are about war, some are about tragedy, and all are a little strange.
The titular tale shows us what living on the edge of a battlefield can do to both an individual and a family unit, as does the unsettling story Gramophone; both ask us to watch as a father and son come unravelled, both by war and bloodshed, but each in their own way. War kills indiscriminately, and with variety, it seems.
‘When the joke was over, they’d remind him that they were … there to protect us and help us. But I knew they were lying. If they really wanted to protect him, why hadn’t they poked his eye out yet, I wondered. They must have realised that if my father had a glass eye fitted, he would frighten them.’
On the other end of the spectrum, the book’s penultimate story, Curtain, tells the tale of a couple who enjoy sex with the window open and the perverted dwarf across the street who enjoys watching them. The story comes to such an odd end that you’ll find yourself looking up from the book with puzzlement on your face and a giggle at your lips.
The point here is that the variety of different takes on human life, and the ways in which we affect one another are infinite and infinitely strange. Sometimes tragic, sometimes wonderful, always strange.
Through every story here, there is an element of the sudden and the unexpected. Matador, for example, tells a story from a young man’s perspective, of his uncle whose dream was always to be a matador, and so he wears a matador uniform every day to his job at a slaughterhouse. As the story goes on, he dies three times. It’s a story which will leave you feeling confused, amused, and a good amount of pity. Likewise, Portion of Jam begins as a sweet tale of a father amusing his child and ends with a form of tragedy that hits with the kind of unsettling gravity that leaves you winded.
‘“Are you the angel of death?” he asked me, trembling. “Do you think the angel of death will wash you with a hosepipe in a garage before he seizes your soul?” I said.’
Maarouf has a rare talent for knowing what people are capable of doing, both to strangers and to the ones they love. He understands how we feel during times and situations that many of us readers will (hopefully) never find ourselves in. Despite the strangest – sometimes magical or ridiculous – moments in these tales (or perhaps because of them), there is more humanity to these stories and characters than you’re likely to read in any other collection this year. This book marks a powerful start to translated literature in 2019.
Mazen Maarouf knows your soul. He knows the souls of strangers, and how those souls interplay. He knows what you are capable of in your brightest and your darkest of moments. He doesn’t underestimate or overestimate anyone. He also knows that life cannot be accurately explained and examined with simple methods, and that often we have to look at life through a prism which distorts and confuses us, in order to see the truth behind the ordinary. To have this much empathy must be truly difficult, but if it leads to art of this calibre then we must be grateful.
If you’re considering writing your own short stories, take this writing class from author Yiyun Li and a 30-day free trial from Skillshare.
If you like this you might want to check our Translated Fiction of 2019 list!
Will predominantly writes about the books of Books and Bao, examining the literature of a place and how the authors have used the art of storytelling to reflect the world and the culture around them.