Despite the fact that I vowed to buy fewer books this year, my Spell the Month reading challenge has made it difficult to do this. I have a lot of unread books but there are plenty of letters that I still don’t have books for. J is one of the most awkward letters for me at the moment and I had to go searching for something to pick up. I read about this when looking on the Booker Prize website. I’m not normally a fan of short story collections because I prefer a longer form. However, this sounded like something that I couldn’t miss. The fact that it’s a J title was an added bonus.
Jokes for the Gunmen made it onto the International Booker longlist in 2019 and Mazen Maarouf was compared with writers like Roald Dahl. It’s easy to see why as the stories in this collection get quite surreal and strange as it goes on. Things start out fairly normally with the titular story. In it, a young boy worries for his father’s safety and comes up with ingenious plans to protect him. These include selling his twin brother’s organs, watering a pepper plant, and getting him a glass eye. The collection’s first and longest story is a fantastic tale about life in a warn zone told through the eyes of youth. It’s got a naivety and dark humour to it that really works.
From this point on, things just get more odd and weird. A lot of the stories are told from the perspective of a child but they start to get more surreal. Not all of the tales in the collection fall into surrealism but there is a definite dreamlike quality to most of them. Something that is helped by the fact that the majority of the stories take place in unnamed cities. This allows you to remove them from reality completely or place them wherever you want. It gives the reader more freedom to put their own meaning to the different viewpoints. It also highlights the point that violence and the experience of living with violence are universal. It could be happening to anyone at any time.
The stories contained in this collection may be strange but they are full of great writing. They explore important topics and raise plenty of great questions. The often disturbing nature of each tale is merely a smokescreen for the message hiding beneath the surface. Jokes for the Gunmen may seem like a bizarre collection about a voyeur dwarf, a blood clot named Munir, a matador, and a man who inhabits the dreams of strangers. However, there is a great deal to unpack in every single bit of writing. For one thing, this shows how important laughter and humour is in situations like this. When life and death are decided in such a random way, the only thing you can do is try to find something funny in it.
There isn’t just humour to be found within these pages. They are all stories full of emotion and trauma. You’ll find yourself constantly moving from being confused, incredibly moved, and horrified. Marrouf has clearly been influenced by some great short story writers but uses his own perspective to bring something exciting to the table. As with all collections, some of the stories are more memorable than the others but there isn’t a real dud among them. This is a collection of beautiful writing that has been well translated. It’s something that will stay with you long after you read it.
Jokes for the Gunmen is a well-formatted collection of stories and it’s very clever that it is so rarely connected to a specific conflict or region. It allows the stories to become timeless and evergreen. Showing that the consequences of living around war and violence run deep and last for a long time. It is not just the physical threat that you have to worry about but the psychological one. These are stories about people trying to survive the onslaught of violence and the effect it has on their mental state. It’s definitely one to read.