Review: Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa

Everything is looted, spoiled, despoiled

Death flickering his black wing,

Anguish, hunger—then why this

Lightness overlaying everything?

– Anna Akhmatova, from Anno Domini

 

Khaled Khalifa’s Death is Hard Work is a masterpiece. Set during the Syrian Civil War, the novel chronicles three siblings who seek to honor the dying wish of their father: to be buried in his hometown of Anabiya next to his sister, Layla.

The landscape through which the family must travel is horrific: checkpoints operated by the regime, the Free Syrian Army, extremists; hungry dogs seeking to eat even human flesh; villages left skeletal and destroyed.

These are images from a nightmare, tales from dead men. And yet, acclaimed Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa, writing from Damascus and refusing to abandon it despite the mass exodus of his friends and family, has rendered these images with hyperrealism alongside a sense of poetry.

How can the ubiquity of death be translated? How can death be meaningful when there is no life to contrast it with any longer?

These are the questions that guide Death is Hard Work and offer the reader an intimate and devastating look into a Syria fractured by war, hunger, and distrust.

The fracture of Syria at large is reflected in the fracture of the family we follow: patriarch Abdel Latif’s sons Hussein and Bolbol, and his daughter, Fatima. This journey to bury their father is the first time in a decade the siblings have spent more than an hour or two together.

Hussein, bull-headed and proud, Bolbol, cowardly and unconfident, and Fatima, inclined to fantasy and tears, do not harmonize as an ensemble. Instead, they push and pull at each other as their father’s corpse swells and rots in the back seat of Hussein’s minibus. Comparisons to Addie and the Bundren family of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying come to mind, but the landscape of the Syrian Civil War alters the terrain of this familiar narrative and transforms it into something far more haunting.

As in Faulkner’s works, the external landscape in Death is Hard Work becomes a means to traverse time. Time splinters as the siblings travel through Syria, and the narrative ricochets between past, present, and future. This form is vertigo-inducing in a way that mirrors how war can disrupt narrative, linearity, and all sense of coherence.

The landscapes found in this book are unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. They remind me most of the desolate, burned out visions from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but even then, the apocalypse in this book is not an invention of a troubled future but a rendering of a civil war still ongoing. It is the first time I’ve come close to seeing my father’s country of Syria in over a decade. I did not want to look, did not want to read it for the images encountered are so horrible and precise, I know they are true.

This is a Syria not offered by news footage nor articles, but holding the painful emotional truth of a Syrian describing what he sees as the world ends.

Even with this pervasive darkness, what struck me most about Death is Hard Work is the interplay between darkness and light. Death hovers over the whole of the book, and yet its core is flooded with light: the loves of Nevine and Lamia which captivate Abdel Latif and Bolbol respectively.

These moments are full of abundant beauty and tenderness, and they anchor the book in something that transcends death even as its black water rushes towards us. They offer a relief or perhaps a counterpoint to the maddening senselessness of war, even if that war holds noble aims such as the freedom of a people against a brutal dictator.

This work, although stunning, is not without its flaws. Its editing could be tighter, and there were moments where I found myself disappointed in the rendering of Fatima as a character. She is often described only as crying, and at one point, even goes mute. While Khalifa’s creation of other female characters such as the fierce feminist force of Layla, is strong, I often found Fatima to be lacking in dimension.

Even so, with Death is Hard Work Khalifa has defended his position as an internationally acclaimed author—his 2006 novel In Praise of Hatred was nominated for the International Prize, the Arabic equivalent to the Man Booker—and he demonstrates immense courage and artistry in staying behind to make a map of the sky falling over Syria.

 

Image courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

About the author

Nadia Ismail is a writer based in New York City.

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