Jokes are tricky. Jokes are subjective. Jokes aren’t always funny. Jokes, like beauty, are very much in the eye of the beholder. Not that Mazen Maarouf’s Jokes for the Gunmen is a joke book (rather the title comes from a detail within the eponymous title story concerning the narrator’s father’s attempts to avoid a beating at the hands of soldiers by fashioning jokes, jokes which are urgently and nervously and somewhat short-temperedly concocted by father and son); rather, it’s a short collection of shortish short stories somewhat in the vein of Etgar Keret.
What we have here are a dozen stories by an author who grew up in Beirut (but who now commutes between Beirut and Iceland), originally written in Arabic and translated by Jonathan Wright. All of the stories exist in a recognisably Arab world, sometimes during periods of conflict and sometimes involving what you might call fantastical elements. Many of the stories are filtered through the eyes of a child (and you have to wonder how indelibly what Maarouf witnessed as a child, having grown up through the Lebanon war, a conflict in which between 15,000–20,000 people were killed, influenced these stories); many of these stories involve fathers leaving or dying. And yet, at the same time, many of these stories are comedic.
So we have the aforementioned eponymous title story (running to 40 pages, making it the longest in the book, but divided into 10 short chapters, each of which are fairly whole in their own right, setting a flavour for flash fiction that isn’t quite flash fiction that permeates the entire collection), which concerns a young boy’s attempts to redeem his father (viewed as weak by the rest of the kids in his school). Then we have ‘Matador’, which concerns an uncle who took three attempts to die over the course of a week, ‘Gramophone’, in which the narrator’s father operates an old fashioned gramophone in a basement bar that is then shelled, and ‘Cinema’, a story about a young boy who loses his family and takes to looking after a random cow.
At which point we get the first hard swerve of the fantastic, with a story called ‘Biscuits’ that concerns an elderly relative whose son tells stories of an old man who wanders along the highway transforming any cars that touch him into biscuits. “This is what I do,” he tells us. “I present her with a story.” In ‘The Angel of Death’, an unsmiling boy becomes an unsmiling man who gradually bends over to the degree that his spine becomes rigid and he is hired out as a platform for children’s parties. In ‘Other-People’s-Dreams Syndrome’, the narrator’s best friend, Hossam, occupies bystander status in the dreams of others whenever he goes to sleep – and it drives him mad. In ‘Aquarium’, a couple who may or may not have lost a child put whatever it was (“a lump of clotted blood”) in a test tube, in an aquarium – and they hold parties for it and behave as if it was a child, or something more real than the aforementioned lump, until it starts to disappear. The barmiest entrant here is to be found in ‘Portion of Jam’ – where a father and son share a property with a cousin who hoards guns.
The best stories in Jokes for the Gunmen are just ok. There is a little flatness to proceedings elsewhere. We suspect someone fancies Maarouf as the next Etgar Keret but he has a ways to go (Keret is a master of the short form – he chooses his words wisely and they all count; Maarouf feels like an impressionist at this point, like he hasn’t quite honed his trade). There is nothing terrible here, but there is nothing dazzling either.
Any Cop?: We came to this one with high hopes (which may have been half the problem) and unfortunately it was a leetle disappointing.