Khalifa, Khaled. Death is Hard Work. London: Faber & Faber, 2019. $27.99. 192pp. ISBN: 9780571346042
Our final moments in this life aren’t generally an appropriate time for clear-eyed reflection; indeed, they always find us at our most sentimental. There’s no room left in them for rational thought, because time itself has solidified and expanded inside them like water becoming ice. Peace and deliberation are required for reviewing the past and settling our accounts – and these are practices that those approaching death rarely take the time to do. The dying can’t wait to fling aside their burdens, the better to cross the barzakh – to the other side, where time has no value. (4)
In a hospital in Damascus, Bolbol’s father dies having made clear one last wish: he should be buried with his sister Layla in his ancestral village Anabiya, just outside of Aleppo. The hospital agrees to hold the old man’s body in its morgue overnight, while Bolbol gathers his brother Hussein and sister Fatima. But by dawn the hospital would take delivery of a new consignment of corpses from the outskirts of Damascus, where the fighting never stopped, and there would be no room for the body of the late Abdel Latif—the siblings need to hurry. And so, with the release paperwork signed, the family, three living and one dead, makes its way in Hussein’s minivan out of the crowded streets of Damascus and onto the road to Aleppo.
The absurdity of respectfully carrying a single body, past the piles of bodies and recently filled mass graves that form the backdrop of the novel, does not undermine its horror. The two-hour journey takes three days. From interminable waiting at roadblocks to arbitrary imprisonment for their father’s past crimes or religious re-education, the obstacles are varied and persistent. The body of Abdel swells and discolours, the odour of decomposition wears the siblings down. And through it all, the siblings reflect on the life and legacy of their recently deceased father, once a man of great pride, now a burden to be carried. A name and birthplace that puts them at political risk, resistance and crimes that follow the family line. Death is hard work, but sometimes so is living.
Despite starvation, everyone still clung to hope and spoke optimistically about the days to come. They realized that despair meant drowning in the abyss, so kept faith with the confidence that was the only possession they had left. The regime, with all its might behind it, inflicted unimaginable losses in every battle, but the people of S couldn’t retreat; they had burnt all their bridges. (92)
This is a story of dashed dreams, of ambitions and loves that never eventuate. Of tending to graves that grow too numerous to count, of making do. And despite the title, and the sense of death that pervades the story, in the air, in the landscape, it is a novel dominated by life. By the struggle to stay alive in the scale of death that surrounds them; random, unpredictable and absurd. It is about how ordinary, honest, people lose hope. How philosophy gives way to obedience. How fervent desire gives way to silence. But also to resilience.
Death is Hard Work, published in 2016 and this year published in translation from its original Arabic, is prize winning Syrian author Khaled Khalifa’s third novel. Carrying shades of Faulkner and Beckett, the hard prose casts the struggles and cruelty of the world Khalifa creates into stark light and shadow. The hope during what we would, though Khalifa doesn’t, call the Arab Spring and the subsequent suppression leading to outright war is a story that is described gradually. It wears the reader down as it erodes the characters. They cannot open the windows against the stench of the corpse, the air outside is too cold and full of predators.
The novel is a claustrophobic read, there is a strong desire to see the characters hit free air, to see the van carrying Abdel’s mortal remains pick up speed. But it grinds. The narrative crawls through the byways and deviations of physical roadblocks and memory. Through it all there is a questioning of obligation: is carrying this body really necessary? Do last wishes mean anything anymore? And if not, what does have meaning? The past that the characters conjure along the road is immutable and, like the threat of death, follows them like a long shadow. There is no escape. Khalifa’s biography states that he lives in Damascus, “which he refuses to leave”. And like their creator, the characters cannot leave, though on occasion they want to. They have to see this task done. They have to see it through, nightmarish and cadaverous, to the end.
Rachel Watts is a writer of literary and speculative fiction. Her work has been published by Westerly, Island, Kill Your Darlings, Tincture and more. Her climate change novella Survival was released in March 2018. You can find her online at www.wattswrites.com or @watts_writes.