A dysfunctional family, a corpse, and a road trip. As the shapeshifting war in Syria enters yet another phase, a new novel shows that it’s not just the landscape but memory and identity that are being razed and refashioned. “In war, the meaning of everything changes: life, hope, frustration, despair,” the writer Khaled Khalifa has said. “Things lose their value, humans become killers and the killed, and time becomes ongoing, tied to a mysterious chord called the hope of survival.”
Khalifa, who was born in Aleppo, now lives and works in battle-weary Damascus. It’s a city he refuses to abandon, believing that “we have new stories every day and we must tell the world about them.” His
Death is Hard Work sets out to do just that. It was first published in Arabic in 2016, and an English translation by Leri Price is now on the shortlist of the National Book Awards’ Translated Literature category. A bleak odyssey
The novel is structured around a bleak odyssey. Three estranged siblings accompany their father’s body in a minibus to their ancestral village to bury him there, in keeping with his last wish. This journey from Damascus to Anabiya, near Aleppo, would normally take a few hours; given the current state of the country, it takes a few days. Along the way, brothers Hussein and Bolbol and their sister Fatima face detours, shattered villages, checkpoints and militiamen from various factions. The blocks of ice and air freshener they have brought with them soon become ineffectual, and the corpse continues to putrefy as the passengers desperately await their journey’s end.
Death is Hard Work has been compared to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and certainly, the basic premise is similar. (In passing, the 2006 Hollywood film, Little Miss Sunshine, also featured a family with a body in the van.) In other respects, though, Death is Hard Work is un-Faulkernian. For a start, Khalifa’s tone is in large part cool, mordant and black-humoured. The decomposing body can be seen as the state of Syria itself. Prodded, peered at, and beyond redemption, its journey to a promised destination is held up by bitter and competing rivalries. There are other savage analogies, too, such as the presence of wolf-like stray dogs that have begun to migrate to Damascus: “Exhausted and not content with bones, they gnawed at the corpses that were too numerous for anyone to bury, especially after the larger battles.” Tyranny and dictatorship
In many sections, Khalifa illuminates the absurdities and changed ways of thinking that war foists on ordinary people. It is a time when the inhabitants of the city regard everyone they see as not so much alive as “pre-dead”. In another village, “the only visible morning activities are death and exodus.” At one stage of the journey, the corpse itself is placed under arrest. The father had earlier been wanted by the Mukhabarat and, as the impounding officer helpfully explains, according to official records the man was still sought after. It’s a mere technicality that in the meantime he had turned into a cadaver.
The novel veers away from the road trip on many occasions, filling in the necessary background and widening perspectives. The lives and loves of the members of the family are explored with tenderness, and light is thrown on the differences between generations. The father was more idealistic and hopeful; one son, Hussein, is pragmatic and assertive; the daughter, Fatima, is somewhat deluded and fatalistic; and as for the other son, Bolbol, who is the novel’s central character, he abandons his study of philosophy for a bureaucratic job and is cautious, hesitant and dreams of emigrating while wondering whether he has the willpower to do so.
On the journey, they squabble, contend with each other’s views, and agree to disagree. Meanwhile, “the calmest of the four was the corpse, of course, which knew no fear or worry; blue tinged, it swelled with perfect equanimity and didn’t care that it might explode at any moment. When it vanished, at last, it would do so willingly, unconcerned with wars, soldiers, or checkpoints.”
In a recent interview, Khalifa has said that he considers the novel “to be the most effective art form for dismantling the narrative of tyranny and dictatorship”. The absorbing and affecting
Death is Hard Work is a humane testament to those words.
Read his columns
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer. here.