Jokes for the Gunmen is a short story collection by award-winning Palestinian-Icelandic writer, poet, translator and journalist, Mazen Maarouf. It was translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright.
All the stories in the collection explore jokes and joking as either a means of exchange or a coping mechanism for the atrocities of living in a country at war. In the eponymous opening story, the father figure must make up jokes for the gunmen in order to avoid their wrath. ‘Of course, in front of a bunch of gunmen you have to be a good storyteller in order to win your freedom. Your story has to be convincing, enjoyable and very short, and it has to make people laugh.’ As a consequence, the withdrawn father and unruly son become closer as they both focus on the task of thinking up a new joke every day.
In the story ‘Jokes’ there is another young boy trying to make up jokes. ‘I don’t have ready-made jokes in my head and I don’t remember any details of the few jokes I’ve heard. So I’m trying to sketch out the scenario for a joke in my head.’ On the flipside, the main character in ‘The Angel of Death’ doesn’t ‘have a sense of humour … and [doesn’t] understand why people smile.’ Throughout the story, everyone around him is trying to make him smile or laugh or giggle, but he is resolute. In fact, he gets angry when a man laughs at something he said ‘since [he] hadn’t intended to make a joke.’ In the story ‘Gramophone’ the father loses both his arms when a vacuum bomb strikes the building he was in, but jokes that it doesn’t matter; the gramophone is broken, so he doesn’t need his arms anyway.
The sense of loss, both physical and emotional, runs throughout the collection. People lose limbs, eyes, loved ones; people are ‘pale, silent and thin’ and ‘hollowed out.’ Another theme rooted within the stories is violence, both inside and outside the home, and good use is made of the liminal line drawn between fantasy and reality.
In many ways this collection is a tough read; the depictions of war-torn families are heartbreaking. However, despite the losses these characters have to bear and somehow overcome, there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Jokes for the Gunmen is a phenomenal collection.