Death Is Hard Work, Khalad Khalifa, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2019, 180 pp (originally published in 2016 by Nawfal, Lebanon, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price.)
This novel, set in present day Syria, is my translated book for the month. It turned out to be another example of Death Bed Lit. In fact, it could be the Syrian version of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
Abdel Latif, an elderly man from a village near Aleppo, lays dying in a Damascus hospital with his son Bolbol standing by. The old man extracts from Bolbol a promise to make sure he is buried in the family plot back in their village, Anabiya.
Anabiya is just a few hours drive from Damascus. How hard could it be? Bolbol contacts his older brother Hussein and his sister Fatima, convincing them to make the journey with him. Hussein procures a small van, Fatima gathers provisions. They get the unembalmed body in the vehicle and set out.
Syria at this time is a war zone and the few hours' drive takes three days. Clogged roads, competing militias, checkpoints with long lines every few miles. Due to the high death rate from continuous bombings, they had to take Abdel's body away from the hospital with only a death certificate and it begins to decay in the brutal heat. Every difference, grudge and personality defect between the siblings boils up.
In a mere 180 pages, Khalifa relates the history of this family and what the war has done to them. It is not all grim because a black humor pervades the tale giving a look into the Syrian soul and temperament. I kept trying to imagine how it would be to travel through such trying conditions.
Khaled Khalifa has an earlier novel set in Syria: No Knives in the Kitchens of This City. Both novels won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. The author is Syrian born and lives in Damascus, refusing to abandon his country despite the dangers created by its Civil War. For that alone, I figured I could pay him the homage of reading this truly horrifying but finely written tale.