Syria’s gut-wrenching civil war serves as the background to Khaled Khalifa’s award-winning new novel, Death Is Hard Work, though incidents in the story often appear not to be provoked by the war but focused on the culture itself. And the terrible message is the same as what we read in our newspapers: there will be no winners after the debacle has long ground to a halt. No matter what side you and you family have taken during the struggle, you lose everything: your honor, your dignity, your filial unity, which is to say that it’s difficult to remember another war novel quite so grim as Khalifa’s, so hopeless. And, yet—because you may be asking why you should bother to read the novel—the story is a truly extraordinary reading experience, comparable in many ways to William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
Both novels focus on adult children honoring the final request of a parent who has died in order to move the body to its final resting site for burial, as unreasonable as that request might be. It’s the unpredictable weather, including a flash flood that almost prevents Addie Burden from receiving a proper burial in Faulkner’s masterpiece. For Khalifa (in a story that is equally masterful) it’s the civil war, a known obstacle that ought to prevent Abdel Latif’s three children even from considering such a difficult undertaking. But reason is rarely applicable to those making such requests, or those carrying them out:
“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.”
The three siblings—two sons and a daughter—haven’t been close to one another in years, barely communicating during the last four. Hussein ceased any contact with his father years ago. They reside in and around Damascus, where their father has died, but it’s several hundred miles away, in Anabaya, where he expects to be buried. They’ve got a beat-up Volkswagen Minibus for conveying the body. It doesn’t take them very long—barely on the outskirts of Damascus—for the two sons to realize just how absurd their undertaking will be. Abdel Latif joined the resistance against the Assad regime; his children, if not exactly loyalists, were pretty much apolitical or more accurately survivalists. Worst of all, “The inhabitants of the city [Damascus] regarded everyone they saw as not so much ‘alive’ as ‘pre-dead.’ It gave them a little relief from their frustration and anger.”
Besides traveling over bombed highways and equally difficult secondary roads (often for safety), there are snipers, checkpoints everywhere (with soldiers expecting to benefit from bribes), evidence of starvation and horrific survival tactics for those still living (fighting over wild herbs, mushrooms and anything that might be edible), stray animals (that haven’t yet been devoured), and in Damascus a regime so frightened of its people that all the movements of the people are monitored. In short, a country torn apart by war, with evidence of death everywhere.
During the three-day journey to the homeland, Abdel Latif’s body disintegrates in spite of the cold weather outside the Minibus. The stench inside the vehicle is unbearable but—as one scene illustrates—they can’t open the windows because of the menace outside. One night when they pull off the road in order to sleep and they crack the windows a bit, starving wild dogs (smelling the decomposing body) attack the vehicle, threatening to break the windows in an attempt to get to the body. In another scene, the two brothers come to blows because of their disagreement about simply tossing the body aside the road or at least giving it a hasty burial somewhere. By the end of the third day of their journey (with innumerable delays at the checkpoints) the body is hardly recognizable. And poor Fatima, who has been riding in the back with her father, is covered with maggots.
What we encounter in the narrative as their ill-fated journey continues is an account of the past lives of all four of them (the deceased and his three children). They have not had happy lives: divorce, unfaithfulness, unrealized career expectations and unhappy relationships with others. Only the patriarch has lived a decent life, though he, too, had the unhappiness of marrying the wrong woman. Yet his politics provided him with direction, even as his children failed in almost all of their undertakings.
Above all, Death Is Hard Work is a story of bureaucratic absurdity, of a police state (in the best of times) where even dying has become as complicated as living, and I’m not referring to the arduous journey to get the body to its final resting place as much the red tape that threatens to bring everything in the country to a full stop.
At one of the checkpoints, the corpse has to be surrendered to the authorities who discover that Abdel Latif—known for being anti-regime—had an active search warrant out for his arrest. “The body would be kept in custody until being transferred to the military hospital for examination, where the death of the wanted man would be confirmed and the legal procedures to permanently cancel the search warrant completed. The agent couldn’t seem to make up his mind from one sentence to the next as to whether the state regarded a person as being merely a collection of documents or rather an entity of flesh, blood, and soul.”
Khaled Khalifa has written a bold narrative of death’s often-difficult reckoning, not just for the survivors but also for the deceased himself. That statement is rendered even more powerful by the final sentence in the writer’s brief bio: “He lives in Damascus, a city he has refused to abandon despite the danger posed by the ongoing Syrian civil war.”