Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Book review: Death Is Hard Work, Khaled Khalifa (2019)

Originally published in Arabic three years ago, this comedy is good indeed. I label it in this way despite the fact that it takes place in war-torn Syria, the author’s homeland. In the book, brothers Hussein and Bolbol, and their sister Fatima, carry the corpse of their just-dead father, Abdel Latif, in Hussein’s minibus, from Damascus to the town of Anabiya, the family’s ancestral village, which is located about 350km north of the nation’s capital. On his deathbed, Abdel Latif had asked Bolbol for this final wish to be granted: he wanted to be buried next to his dead sister.

But this turns out to be more easily said than done, hence the book’s title. From roadblock to holding cell and on down a highway where you are as likely to pass a convoy of tanks as a bus full of passengers, we follow the three travellers on a great adventure. While the narrative is focalised at different times through different characters, point of view switching from Fatima to Bolbol to Hussein as the author fills out the backstory in order to provide enough colour to keep the reader fully engaged with the drama, Bolbol is the protagonist in the tale.

While the road trip and all it entails is compelling and provides the forward movement that gives the story impetus, break-out sections chronicling Bolbol’s student-days romance or Abdel Latif’s second marriage give it additional meaning. On the margin, between these two realms, is a space where we are forced to care about the people whose lives we are witnessing. Here, where feelings mingle and separate as the siblings think about each other and about their father, this skilful author engages the reader’s empathy. And amid all the official contumely, anxiety, death, affection, disappointment, and nostalgia, the author’s sense of humour never wanes. It sits like the full moon in the sky, illuminating everything it touches with its ghostly refulgence.

Another object that is redolent with meaning, of course, is the corpse in the minivan, an object that, a bit like Syria itself, decays and suppurates before people’s eyes and that appals those who open the doors of the vehicle to look inside. In this way the corpse of Abdel Latif can serve as a metaphor for something larger, just as the journey that the three siblings take can be seen – given the convention of artistic license that novel readers have long become accustomed to – to stand in for life itself. But nothing as utilitarian as either of these readings are forced upon the reader; you are free to understand what happens in the book in any way you like. The lesson is severe but the message is whispered in your ear like a secret.

With a novel like this, from the perspective of a Western reader, what is so interesting are the ways that people deal with the circumstances that make up their lives. Because this is essentially a comedy – albeit one with some high drama and the ever-present threat of danger – it is the relations between people that are paramount for the author. Topical issues give way in importance to the wellbeing of the individual. For this we should be grateful to Khalifa, as he has in this book opened up a window to other lives, other value systems, and a society that is completely unlike ours even though the needs of the people who, in aggregate, make it up, are the same as ours. This gap provides the reader with a source of inspiration for the imagination.

It’s not just the war that makes this world so strange – although the war is certainly one thing Khalifa wants to tell us about – it’s the people and their ways of thinking that are so radically alternative when compared to those of people in my own country. People’s expectations of the roles that should be played in their lives by the state and the family, or their way of identifying with others in their community through such institutions as religion or work, turn out to be dissimilar from what is the norm in the West. Meanwhile, people living in Syria need safety and sustenance, they need companionship and community, and they need love. In this delightful novel three people come alive through the magic of art to show us their world.

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