Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
The Bleeds are the ruling dynasty of Mahbad, an imaginary country somewhere in Central Asia. Blanco Bleeds was the founder, 50 years previously. After his assassination, his son Mustafa ruled for almost 30 years until a stroke incapacitated him. For five years now Mustafa’s 37-year-old son Vadim has ruled, but he has been reluctant to give up his cocaine-laced playboy lifestyle.
Now the government is holding an election to legitimate Vadim’s tenure, and all is definitely not going well. The streets of the capital are mobbed with protesters, cars are set on fire, and worse, Vadim may lose the election—badly, beyond any ability to rig the vote. Faced with this tumult, Vadim takes what to him is the most prudent course: he leaves the country on his private jet, leaving his aged father and his top advisor, Interior Minister General Constantin Benini, to manage things until the situation cools down.
The chapters in The Bleeds alternate among several voices, most prominently Mustafa and Vadim, but also “The Nation,” the national newspaper, as well as the seditious “Transfusion Blog.” What seems at the start to be a straightforward narrative of a country in turmoil told from different viewpoints becomes instead an artfully constructed, challenging patchwork of a narrative full of confusion, ignorance, and obfuscation. No one party has complete information, and the various positions they take don’t always complement each other to paint a coherent picture. Mustafa and Vadim in particular not only have very different views of the state of affairs in their country, each has a shaky grasp of reality. Thus the truth of what is going on is elusive. Who is actually protesting? Are the uranium mines really the only card they can play against the American Russians and Chinese? Which of those are their friends—or enemy? And who is really in control?
Author Nasrallah has created a distinctive and quite entertaining story, if often darkly so. Billed as an allegory of the typical petty dictatorship supported by the West, Nasrallah cleverly portrays the vanity and self-delusion that absolute power can create. A dictator’s prescription for staying in power is a mixture of opportunism, pretence, chaos, and violence, and the characters describe their behaviour in a self-congratulatory, matter-of-fact way that is both funny and horrifying. The author has his fun too: the characters’ names are taken from numerous sources and languages and are clearly meant to carry extra meaning. Start with “Bleed.” This is beautifully apt: those bearing it bleed their country and other people both of wealth and of life. “Blanco” seems to allude to Francisco Franco and “Benini” to Benito Mussolini. “Vadim” apparently has several meanings: a “powerful ruler” (Russian) and “deceiving and unpredictable” (Greek). There are more, of course, but the underlying point is that the Bleeds and their ilk are a universal type, present in many incarnations across the world.
In the end, there is self-pity and a small dose of self-recognition. If there is a moral to the story, it is that there is a cycle to despotism that repeats itself over and over. Only the names change.
The Bleeds is published by Véhicule Press.