Death is Hard Work, Khaled Khalifa
(Trans; Leri Price. Pub/UK; Faber)
By Guy Mannes-Abbott
“Death had become hard work. Just as hard as living, in Bolbol’s view.” Abdel Latif al-Salim’s youngest son has promised, “in a rare moment of courage”, to honour his father’s dying wish to be buried with his sister Layla. The retired teacher and belated rebel died of natural causes in a hospital in Damascus when nothing else is natural in the middle of Syria’s uprising. Bolbol triggers the 400 kilometre drive north into Aleppo’s hinterlands, which takes 3 torturous days and ends with maggots climbing the windows of the family minibus.
Death is Hard Work is a huge novel of just 180 pages and the third of Khaled Khalifa’s to appear in English, courtesy of their translator Leri Price. In Praise of Hatred (2008) and No Knives in the Kitchens of this City (2013) were each short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, with the latter winning a prestigious Mahfouz Medal, and arrived in English in 2014 and 2016 respectively. They were preceded by two further novels, while their author has also written for television in Damascus, where he lives to this day.
Khalifa captured a freighted immobility in all this which his new novel disperses with ferocious intent.
Khalifa’s new novel spans the years since 2011’s uprising from the vantage of 2014. The contents appear to resemble his earlier works; If You Were a Sack of Cumin, A Bouquet Floating Down a River and Bolbol Flying in a Narrow Space. In Praise was prefaced with a character list and both predecessors assembled histories of the country under autocratic regimes, played out in delicately individuated, complexly woven human encounters over generations in and around Khalifa’s home town of Aleppo. A bleakly despairing shame, produced by oppressive familial and political regimes, was leavened by small pleasures and characters like Nizar in No Knives whose queerness was a nuanced source of inspiration. Khalifa captured a freighted immobility in all this which his new novel disperses with ferocious intent.
Death represents a passage to the act; an uprising across classes, sects and territories that intensified when the regime reverted to massacring civilians, not this time in Hama but Homs in 2012. At the time Khalifa wrote an open letter pleading with writers and journalists not to remain silent in the face of the “extermination of my people”. A year later he declaimed that “today the revolution demands work”, and “I for one cannot write a novel about the revolution”. This is why Abdel Latif and the medic who eases his last days in Bolbol’s regime-friendly alley in Damascus speak of “a revolution against the entire world, not just against the regime.” For the avoidance of doubt, descriptors shift through the novel from ‘revolution’, to ‘civil war’, to ‘war is war’ and firmly back to ‘revolution’.
For the avoidance of doubt, descriptors shift through the novel from ‘revolution’, to ‘civil war’, to ‘war is war’ and firmly back to ‘revolution’.
It all begins with a refrigerated cadaver before Bolbol engages his brother -whom Abdel Latif called “a pimp” for ferrying Russian dancers around regime circles- and their sister Fatima for the journey in Hussein’s compromised minibus to their ancestral village on the Kurdish-Turkey borders. They leave behind people “not so much ‘alive’ as pre-dead’”, to negotiate wide-spread devastation, including endless checkpoints where the corpse is arrested and freed after one of several bribes. We pass through a land where death has become a “terrifying flood drowning everyone”, no longer very distressing to experience but “an escape much envied by the living”. All the while the siblings, whose estrangement is beyond recovery, sit pressed up against the rotting corpse just as we, readers of the world, are compelled to stay with our troubling responsibilities.
Khalifa has written often of death, which haunts No Knives most keenly, but those deaths are recognisable even if their crushing milieu is not. Here everything is senseless; death itself is unrecognisable and even as Abdel Latif’s consequential end is the first line of the book, its second contains mention of his sister Layla’s death. We only loop back to Layla mid-novel and discover a harrowing story of public self-immolation, just as she had threatened when forced by her family and village’s ossified tradition to marry someone of their choice.
Death is Khalifa’s finest work to date; a lean, highly affective scream through the Syrian night replete with allusive memories of tenderness, resolve and new values in the ruins.
If the death of Abdel Latif, and the responsibilities it brings, is the simple plot-line here, Khalifa weaves iterative narrative loops around it with masterly economy. His previous novels were more traditionally paced in developing similar patterns with increasing depth and detail. Death is Khalifa’s finest work to date; a lean, highly affective scream through the Syrian night replete with allusive memories of tenderness, resolve and new values in the ruins. Thus we discover, for example, that Abdel Latif has (re)married the singer of Iraqi songs he loved at first sight during four years of siege in a rebel town outside Damascus, living an honourable “new life” tending flowers, vegetables and 1700 bodies in his own graveyard.
Khalifa’s writing embodies a poetics of vast scope and palpable truthfulness which still demands testimonial support amid so contested a series of events. I recognised that truthfulness when the siblings encounter an abyss of regime corruption at the first checkpoint, rendering them speechless yet needing to “break the strident silence.” I witnessed the direct participation of armed state police in the massacres and mass displacement of ‘Muslims’ in Gujarat 2002, trapped in a small car with the late Bhupen Khakhar after which we laboured mightily to break just such a mortified silence.
Undead, what and who will you defend and nurture as your world drowns?
In ‘passing to the act’ in this way, Khalifa frees-up reckless appetites while stripping Syrian and human existence to its very bone. He has often spoken of there being no conceivable return to how Syria was before, which makes for painful reading three years after Death’s original publication. Nevertheless, this extreme existentialism resolves personal, social and cultural knots, partly by asking tough but very simple questions of its characters and readers. Undead, what and who will you defend and nurture as your world drowns?
Life, as Bolbol says, is almost harder than death at this degree of intensity, but it is also as light as the tang of warm cumin seeds, petals caught in river waters, and flight in confined spaces. This is a novel that demands to be lived, not merely read. Khalifa wants the world to recognise our responsibilities but also to appreciate the quick clarities that come when your life is at stake at all times. Death deserves your urgent attention as well as prizing to the hills.
Humble note! I was slow to get hold of a copy of this 5 or 6 weeks before publication on 7 March. Eager to see a new novel by KK, I read it immediately, was electrified, and decided to write something whether commissioned to or not, for my own sanity/benefit and to try ‘writing short’ after a long interlude. Obviously, it would be a bit tighter if commissioned for somewhere specific. I’m sorry I didn’t manage to place it where it would do its work for this significantly good and important book. From my responses, I imagine (wink, wink) we can expect 5 or 6 of the obvious print Books pages to run excellent and timely critical pieces; anything else is unthinkable. Let’s see…
. The Scotsman published a review by Roger Cox that was short but timely; “a hugely brave undertaking, presenting as it does an unflinching portrait of daily life in his native land – a place where, after years of fighting, otherwise unimaginable horrors have come to seem mundane … for all its bleakness, the novel offers glimpses of hope”
. The Guardian published a review by Hisham Matar two months after publication day. It focused on personal nuances -anomalies and doubts, over-generously viz Bolbol- with characteristic finesse, nevertheless I felt it odd to use only the term “civil war” to describe events which the book’s author is notably less equivocal about. “Khalifa is a soulful and perfectly unsentimental writer … Leri Price, who has translated Khalifa before, is alive and faithful to the Syrian’s unadorned and direct prose, sentences that often bring together the poetic and the horrific.”
. The FT published a review by André Naffis-Sahely also two months after publication which happily agrees very precisely with my judgement; “Death Is Hard Work may be Khalifa’s finest achievement yet, movingly conveying the fear, paranoia and hardships of life in an embattled police state.” However, references to “hardship”, the siblings being “unhappy with their lot in life” and the insistent use of “civil war” again, are striking.
UPDATE Sept. 2019
. Electric Lit published a very good interview by Azareen Van De Vliet Oloomi In June 2019, prefaced with her conclusion that “Death is Hard Work is a novel worth paying close attention to, a book we will likely be talking about for years to come.” It’s worth noting what Khalifa himself says regarding revolution/civil war after the book’s English reception in which the former term was systematically diluted: