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The Corpse Washer
by Sinan Antoon
Translated from the Arabic by the author
A Margellos World Republic of Letters Book. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013.
Iraqi life and death – conjoined
Sinan Antoon is one of the most talented of the younger generation of Iraqi writers to have emerged from the chaos of that country’s recent history. Born in Baghdad in 1967, he left Iraq after the 1991 US-led invasion, and currently works as an associate professor at the Gallatin School, New York University. Poet and translator as well as novelist, his work has featured in BANIPAL on several occasions. The Corpse Washer, originally published in Arabic in 2010 as Wahdaha Shajarat al-Rumman [Only the Pomegranate Tree], is his second novel; his third, entitled Ya Maryam [Ave Maria], was shortlisted for the IPAF prize in 2013.
Narrated in the first person, The Corpse Washer – which might loosely be described as a Bildungsroman – tells the story of Jawad, the book’s hero and protagonist, who is born into a family of traditional Shi’ite corpse washers in Baghdad. With his elder brother, he is initiated into the family trade as a mghassilchi, but his interests and ambitions stretch wider than the family’s traditional occupation, and in the late 1980s he enrols in the Baghdad Academy of Fine Arts, intending to become a sculptor. At a family level, his ambitions predictably set him on a collision path with his father; but the book’s real impact derives not so much from its account of such family tensions, as from the fact that they are played out against the background of a series of historical developments that suck the country into a nightmarish spiral of collapse, from which it has yet to emerge. The repression of Saddam Hussein’s rule is exacerbated by the horrors of the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War (a conflict that largely bypassed the consciousness, let alone the conscience, of the West); but the dictator’s fall is destined to be followed by an even more efficient and brutal occupation by the Americans (“The student is gone and the teacher is here”, as one character remarks on p.72), and in turn by civil disintegration as Sunni is pitted against Shi’ite in a frenzy of sectarian violence, and ‘disappearances’ become commonplace.
All this, of course, is grist to the mill for a trained mghassilchi, so it is little surprise to find Jawad, with his father now dead, returning to the family business of washing and shrouding. He deals with death just as others are employed to process papers or operate machinery: ‘I walk down the street and look at people’s faces and think Who among them will end up on the bench next for me to wash?’ (p.131). The low point of his career is perhaps reached when, in place of the traditional headless corpse, he is presented with the severed head of an engineer to prepare for burial – the head being all that his relatives had been able to retrieve from his kidnappers, despite the payment of a sizeable ransom.
Not everything in the book is quite so grim, however, for despite everything, life must go on: “I had thought that life and death were two separate worlds with clearly defined boundaries”, muses Jawad on the final page of the book. “But now I know that they are conjoined, sculpting each other.” Two young women come into his life – Reem, whom he meets while studying in Baghdad, and Ghayda, a cousin who comes to live with him and his mother – and the progress of his relationship with Reem in particular adds a gentler dimension to the book that offsets both the inherent gruesomeness of Jawad’s profession and the collapse of the society around him. All this is narrated in a style that is deftly crafted, with an occasional touch of grim humour, carrying the reader along with it, even when describing the details of the corpse washer’s work. Only at one point, in Chapter 22, where Antoon recounts the visit to Baghdad of Jawad’s uncle from Berlin, did I feel that the pace was perhaps not quite right and that the narrative was becoming a touch laboured.
Not having seen the original Arabic publication, I cannot comment on the relation between the two versions, nor on how exactly we are to interpret the text as an exercise in “self translation”. This is, however, not something likely to bother the average English-speaking reader. Jawad’s profession allows Antoon to paint a picture of the Iraqi tragedy from a unique perspective, and as an overall judgment, I can only echo the words of a previous reviewer in al-Hayat by saying that this is “the best novel about the Iraqi tragedy” I have read, and urge others to buy it and read it.
Just before going to press, it was announced that The Corpse Washer has been longlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Published in Banipal 49 – A Cornucopia of Short Stories