Death Is Hard Work
The plot of Death Is Hard Work is anything but simple: Three siblings have to transport their dead father’s body across war-torn Syria so he can be buried in his home village. Abdel Latif al-Salim, the father, dies peacefully in his sleep. His final wish? To be buried where he’s from, not in Damascus. In a drive that should take a few hours takes the siblings — Bolbol, Hussein, and Fatima — days. The book chronicles their journey through checkpoints, disaster, and their attempt to bury their father before his body decomposes (they’re transporting him in a normal van, nothing equipped to deal with a dead body). Their messy relationship is at the forefront — as is their father’s history as a freedom fighter and the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Soon after they leave Damascus, they are stopped at a checkpoint, and there’s an outstanding warrant for their father’s arrest. Can you arrest a corpse?
As the Los Angeles Times review notes, “What do you do when you find yourself in a situation where a corpse can be arrested, where even the fact of death is not enough to offer absolution or reprieve? This is one of the questions posed by the novel, and it applies equally to oppressed and oppressor, both of whom are caught with one another in a descending spiral, a gravitational field from which they can’t escape.” (There are multiple comparisons to the William Faulkner classic As I Lay Dying, which I read in high school English but do not remember so I cannot comment on them!!)
Khaled Khalifa, the author, is an acclaimed Syrian novelist. He still lives in Syria, and he is called “the greatest chronicler of Syria’s ongoing and catastrophic civil war.” Even if you know nothing about Syria, this is well worth your time. Rating: ★★★★★