9 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Antoon gives us a remarkable novel that in 184 pages captures the experience of an Iraqi everyman who has lived through the war with Iran in the first half of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War over the Kuwaiti invasion, and then the 2003 war.

Jawad is the youngest child from a Baghdad family. His father, like his father before him, is a traditional corpse washer—an honored and necessary role for their Shi’ite Moslem community that eschews embalming for immediate burial. The elder son was in training to be a doctor when drafted and killed during war.

The focus on Jawad tracks his relationships with his father, who starts the gradual training of his son at age eight (as he had with the older son) in the ritual of corpse washing; with his mother, widowed over the course of the novel; and with two different women with whom he is romantically involved. Both his father’s death and the crises of war limit Jawad’s practical future. He longs to be an artist, a sculptor, and completes a university degree to that end, with much tension between son and father. His father’s death, the economic realities of war, and finally his sense of duty, bring him back to the family business.

In Western literary terms the novel is a contemporary form of tragedy. At two different phases of his life Jawad becomes involved with a woman. Each relationship ends, not without love between Jawad and each woman, but without conditions that can lead to marriage. Jawad does not have hubris, but is instead contained by the situations so much out of his control. Like the statues of Giacometti that Jawad admires, he is stretched and distorted by the existential circumstances in which he finds himself, trapped in a way, but not without insight by the conclusion of the novel that gives him a some small sense of meaning and purpose in a profession centered around death.

Interestingly, Antoon brings in the reality of war, often in a matter-of-fact way, as background and context. He neither dwells on it, nor ignores it. This isn’t a novel centered on brutalities, battles, and direct conflicts between the occupied and their occupiers. The same approach applies to the corpses, with the exception of two toward the end of the book; one might expect graphic detail that would personalize all involved—the dead men, the relatives who brought them, the corpse washer, and by extension, the reader. Again, this is not a novel of outrage against the depredations and horrors of war in a visceral manner. Instead, the personal lives of Jawad, his family, his friends, and community members are warped by the unrelenting backdrop of conflict after conflict.

Antoon writes in two different, alternating styles. One is grounded in realistic portrayals in a time of distortion:

I was startled as I uncovered the face of one of the men I washed yesterday. He looked exactly like a dear friend of mine who’d died years ago. The same rectangular cheek bones, and long nose. The skin and eyes were coffee brown. His eyes were shut, of course. Their sockets were somewhat hollow. The thick eyebrows looked as if they were going to shake hands. But, I said to myself, I’ve already seen him dead in my arms once before. The name on the paper was Muhsin. The distinguishing mark that this person, who looked so much like my friend, had acquired was a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. It looked like a period which had put an end to the sentence of his life. One of the men who brought him to me said he was a shop owner and was killed in a robbery. Thank God, I thought. It’s not a sectarian killing. But does it matter to the dead how and why they die? Theft, greed, hatred or sectarianism? We, who are waiting in line for our turn, keep mulling over death, but the dead person just dies and is indifferent.

The short declarative sentences even when describing the horrific have a certain flatness of tone. Note how Antoon brings by economy of detail into one paragraph the role of corpse washer, the personal (a dead friend), violence, art-making that is life (the period at the end of a sentence), the everyday—a shop owner with friends, sectarian divisions, the finality of death.

The other mode is poetic leading to the surreal. Jawad’s first love, Reem, has just written from Amman revealing that she and her family had left Baghdad because she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she has had a mastectomy:

I see Reem standing in an orchard full of blossoming pomegranate trees the wind moves the branches and the red blossoms appear to be waving from afar. Reem waves as well and her hands say Come close! I walk toward her and call out her name, but I can hear neither my own voice nor the sound of my footsteps. All I hear is the wind rustling Reem smiles without saying anything. I am closer and I see two pomegranates on her chest instead of her breasts. She notices that I am looking at them and smiles as she cups them with her hands from below. Her fingernails and lips are painted pomegranate red. I rush toward her, and when I reach her and hug her, the left pomegranate falls to the ground. When I bend down to pick it up I see red stains bathing my arm. I turn back and see Reem crying as she tries to stop the fountain of blood gushing from the wound.

Antoon does quite an interesting thing as the novel progresses, as he removes the boundaries between the surreal and real-world encounters. An example: when male relatives bring just the decapitated head of a loved one for burial. The routine of washing comes up against the ghastly. Conversely, what seems real becomes revealed as dream: a description of Jawad waiting in line to get his visa to travel to Amman—a plausible step in the progression of the plot—when a suicide bomber ahead in line detonates, and Jawad is covered in blood, and then awakens. Dream and reality, the mundane and the surreal, blur.

This merger of reality and dream comes together in the second love affair Jawad has, with his cousin who has come with her family to live with Jawad and his mother. Over a succession of nights the two insomniacs grow closer and eventually become lovers. When it is time for her family to leave and for Jawad to step forward in one last opportunity to ask for her in marriage, he balks. This is a night-time relationship and cannot be sustained in something like ordinary life, the light of day. Death and Jawad’s duties toward the dead have overtaken him.

Significant roles and symbols interweave to tie the novel tighter together: an uncle in self imposed exile because of Communist sympathies and the impotence of political parties; statues in many roles and anecdotes; normal human institutions such as universities contending with the not-normal.

Pomegranates, like those referenced in the Reem dream sequence already cited, are part of Islamic religious symbolism. One must eat all the small pieces, the arils, of the pomegranate because one will always be from a tree in paradise. Beside the building where the corpses are washed is a small garden watered by the run-off from the washing ceremony. At the center of this garden is a pomegranate tree, beloved by Jawad’s father and eventually by Jawad, who sometimes rests beside it and talks to it. Two twigs from the tree go into each coffin as a symbolic way of easing the journey of the dead.

At the end of the novel Jawad has accepted his place as a corpse washer. The crucial moment comes when he is turned away at the border with Jordan; single men are not allowed to cross. While waiting for his turn at the border he sees a TV showing yet another bombing and the scene of dead bodies. He wonders, with all the conflicted realities with which he struggles, who might tend the bodies. While his sense of vocational call in the moment might be muted, and is a call always caught up in the troubling reality of death, here, however, is a moment where Jawad sees his place in his world.

The novel concludes with Jawad sitting beneath the tree, listening to a nightingale sing, until it is scared away by the arrival of another corpse; Mahdi, his assistant, breaks this silence:

It started singing with a gentle sweetness—as if it knew I had complained that paradise was far away, so it had brought its sound right here . . .

The living die or depart, and the dead always come. I had thought that life and death were two separate worlds with clearly marked boundaries. But now I know they are conjoined, sculpting each other. My father knew that, and the pomegranate tree knows it as well.

Mahdi opened the door and said, “Jawad, they brought one.”

The nightingale fled. I sighed and said, “Okay, I’m coming. Just give me another minute.”

I am like the pomegranate tree, but all my branches have been cut, broken, and buried with the dead. My heart has become a shrunken pomegranate beating with death and falling every second into a bottomless pit.

But no one knows. No one. The pomegranate alone knows.

9 September 13 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is from Grant Barber on Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer, from Yale University Press.

Grant is not only a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston, but has reviewed for Three Percent for forever, basically, and sometimes also performs as Chad’s stunt double at conferences.

Here’s the beginning of his review:

Antoon gives us a remarkable novel that in 184 pages captures the experience of an Iraqi everyman who has lived through the war with Iran in the first half of the 1980s, the 1991 Gulf War over the Kuwaiti invasion, and then the 2003 war.

Jawad is the youngest child from a Baghdad family. His father, like his father before him, is a traditional corpse washer—an honored and necessary role for their Shi’ite Moslem community that eschews embalming for immediate burial. The elder son was in training to be a doctor when drafted and killed during war.

The focus on Jawad tracks his relationships with his father, who starts the gradual training of his son at age eight (as he had with the older son) in the ritual of corpse washing; with his mother, widowed over the course of the novel; and with two different women with whom he is romantically involved. Both his father’s death and the crises of war limit Jawad’s practical future. He longs to be an artist, a sculptor, and completes a university degree to that end, with much tension between son and father. His father’s death, the economic realities of war, and finally his sense of duty, bring him back to the family business.

In Western literary terms the novel is a contemporary form of tragedy. At two different phases of his life Jawad becomes involved with a woman. Each relationship ends, not without love between Jawad and each woman, but without conditions that can lead to marriage. Jawad does not have hubris, but is instead contained by the situations so much out of his control. Like the statues of Giacometti that Jawad admires, he is stretched and distorted by the existential circumstances in which he finds himself, trapped in a way, but not without insight by the conclusion of the novel that gives him a some small sense of meaning and purpose in a profession centered around death.

For the rest of the review, go here.

25 January 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

When I was in New York last week for sales calls and publicity meetings (which is why the blog has been so slow . . . But I’m back! And excited about life, the BTBAs, books, and everything, so expect an onslaught of material for the next few days . . . ), everyone was all abuzz about the fact that the New Yorker ran an enormous article on Arabic literature in translation. (Of course, they also used the ages-old “Found/Lost in Translation” title for which there NEEDS TO BE A MORATORIUM, but so be it.)

Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote this piece, which is basically a run down of recently published works of Arab literature. She doesn’t mention The Zafarani Files, which is a personal favorite and is on the BTBA longlist, but the titles she cites all sound rather interesting. I highly recommend reading the whole article, but in shorthand, blog-world fashion, here’s a rundown of the titles covered, with short quotes and links to buy the books at Idlewild:

  • Saddam City by Mahmoud Saeed, translated by Ahmad Sadri (Saqi Books)

For all the horror it details, this is a startlingly warm and humane book. Saeed, despite the incitements of his subject, does not aspire to the Kafkaesque—Kafka, it must be admitted, is among the most impossible of authors to emulate, along with García Márquez—but maintains a specificity of place and history (this happened in Basra, that happened in Mosul) and of the individuals who inhabit them. Set mostly in the run-up to the Iran-Iraq War, in the late nineteen-seventies, this slender novel tells of a mild-mannered Basra schoolteacher who, although cautiously apolitical, is whisked off one day for “a simple interrogation.” His subsequent experience in six levels of hell—six prisons in all—is exactingly described, but the long ordeal is mitigated, both for him and for the reader, by a dose of bitter humor, a share of personal good will, and the mutual trust that he discovers among the prisoners, a trust long since forfeited in the larger prison of the informer-ridden society outside.

  • I’jaam by Sinan Antoon, translated by the author and Rebecca C. Johnson (City Lights)

The title refers to the practice of adding dots—diacritical marks—to various letters of the Arabic alphabet, some of which are indistinguishable without these marks in place. An undotted sequence of letters may signify a number of different words; the correct translation can be determined only by context. The story’s intriguing premise is that a handwritten, undotted manuscript has been found in a file in Baghdad’s Interior Ministry, and a functionary assigned to add the necessary dots and make a transcription: the resulting manuscript forms the body of the book. The text turns out to be the work of a university student whose gift for political mockery got him sent to prison, where he wrote the manuscript—leaving out the dots to avoid further incrimination. Its uncertain readings cause the scribe to offer footnotes to such perplexing references as “the Ministry of Rupture and Inflammation” (“Could this be the Ministry of Culture and Information?”) and to such obvious errors as occur in the well-known song lyric that details how the nation’s leader moves from house to house and “fucks us into bed.” (“Note: the original lyrics read ‘tucks.’ ”)

  • Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani, translated by Hilary Kilpatrick (Lynne Rienner)

“Men in the Sun” is, on the simplest level, a gripping tale that unfolds with Hitchcockian suspense as the reader is reduced to fearfully counting the minutes on the smuggler’s wristwatch. The prose is lean, swift, and—in Hilary Kilpatrick’s translation—filled with phrases of startling rightness: “The lorry, a small world, black as night, made its way across the desert like a heavy drop of oil on a burning sheet of tin”; or, even better, “The speedometer leapt forward like a white dog tied to a tent peg.” The realistic intensity of Kanafani’s world tends to conceal his stylistic ambitions: the intricacy with which he weaves together past and present, fact and delusion, and the alternating voices of his characters, each of whom is drawn with the rapid assurance of a charcoal sketch. But on a deeper level Kanafani’s work is about the desperation that drove these men to such lengths to regain work and dignity; it is about the longing—just emerging in the Palestinian public voice—for the moist earth and the olive trees of the villages left behind in 1948. Most painfully, it is about the awakening of self-recrimination for acquiescence in the loss, as in the thoughts of an old man who has been living “like a beggar” and decides to risk the journey.

  • Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury, translated by Humphrey Davies (Archipelago/Picador)

A tremendously ambitious work, covering half a century of Palestinian history, it begins with maps of the region dotted with the names of old Palestinian villages, the way big Russian novels begin with family trees: here, through all the narrative advance and obliteration, is what you must keep steady in your mind. Set in a dilapidated hospital in the Shatila refugee camp, in Beirut, in the mid-nineties, the book’s many winding stories are told by a male Scheherazade, a fortyish Palestinian medic whose unceasing talk is intended to rouse a comatose old man, a resistance hero who spent decades sneaking over the Lebanese border into Israel, to carry out attacks that earned him the title the Wolf of Galilee. We do not see much of the attacks; instead, we see the warrior as a lover—not as the Wolf but simply as a man—paying secret visits to his wife, left behind on what has become Israeli land. As a result of these conjugal visits, the hero plants his children in Galilee, before going away again to fight to liberate them.

So great to see a piece like this. Getting info about any international lit in translation can be hard, but finding out about Arabic literature tends to be especially tricky. Hopefully I can write a lot more about the Arab publishing scene—and interesting untranslated titles—next month during the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair . . .

....
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