On Reading “Death Is Hard Work” By Khaled Khalifa

I love our school libraries. I try to be a frequent flyer in both the elementary and secondary collections. They never disappoint. While coping with the brief disappointment at discovering that Katie Kitamura’s novel, A Separation, was checked out (bittersweet, because also, Yay! someone else is enjoying excellent fiction!), I browsed the shelf for reasonable alternatives. In that case, I tend to select based on how the title lands and do a quick check of the cover dynamics. That’s how Khaled Khalifa‘s novel, Death Is Hard Work, ended up in my hands.

Cover of Death Is Hard Work (white background with Black lettering, pencil detail drawing of minibus where bullet holes on a wall are where tires should be.)

Originally published in Arabic in 2016, Death Is Hard Work relates the struggle of three estranged siblings transporting their father’s corpse through war-torn Syria from Damascus to the father’s birth home of Anabiya. It is Abdel Latif’s dying wish and his second son, Bolbol feels obligated to carry it out with the help of his sister and older brother, Fatima and Hussein. What Khalifa weaves together are relationship strands that run through the past of these family members and shows how these play out in their at once terrifying and matter-of-fact commitment. On a trip that would have taken a few hours under pre-war circumstances, the family requires over three days to navigate checkpoints and territories of various combatant factions.

I was a little worried at the outset because my knowledge of the conflict is Syria is abominable. My ignorance defines my relationship to the region. I need to be honest about that. Through these richly portrayed characters, Khalifa leads the reader into a Syrian society of lower middle class families where a full range of human possibilities are on display. Bolbol, the selectively dutiful son of small time revolutionary, Abdel Latif, serves as the primary narrator. Through him we learn the histories and heartbreaks of his father and siblings and their further relations. Bolbol is a wonderfully complex and somewhat tragic character. We get the feeling that he’s simply not cut out to ever, ever get what he really wants. Only in the last third of the book do we learn that our narrator’s real name is Nabil rather than Bolbol, a childhood nickname he gave up trying to correct.

On many levels, Khalifa writes about longing and disappointment; the constant struggle to make do with dream remnants in the midst of sour realities. The metaphor that appears several times is that of a bouquet floating down a river.

“Discovering love is like seeing a bouquet floating down a river. You have to catch it at the right time, or the river will sweep it away: it won’t wait for long. You have only a few intense, mad moments to give voice to your profound desires.” (p. 65)

Later when Abdel Latif describes his late stage marriage to an early sweetheart, Nevine, the floating bouquet makes another appearance:

“But his father surprised him when he added the following night that every door should be thrown open to love, that love could sweep away the past all at once, which had helped cleanse his being and strip away the withered branches that would never put out leaves again. It was agonizing, of course, to slice off your awful past and throw it away, but it was necessary if you were to catch the bouquet of roses floating down the river and carry it safely to the other side…” (p. 71)

Bolbol offers us insight into everyone’s peculiar form of suffering, from his own cage of fears to his brother’s unrelenting anger and his sister’s wounded pride – these all against a backdrop of a nation descending into the civil war through which the protagonists end up traveling. Of course, while transporting a rotting corpse across a landscape where the primary distinctions are degrees of physical devastation, death is constant companion. And, as the title makes clear, death is and becomes hard work. (Translated literally, the title would be Death Is Hard Labour)

Precisely Khalifa’s handling of death – the grossness of decay, the numbness that develops by constantly being confronted by it – demonstrates the author’s remarkable craft and sensitivity. The book has its share of humor. I was struck by this crisply related image:

“The calmest of the four was the corpse, of course, which knew no fear or worry; blue-tinged, it swelled with perfect equanimity and didn’t care that it might explode at any moment. When it vanished, at last, it would do so willingly, unconcerned with wars, soldiers or checkpoints.” (p. 127)

Rather than build our sympathies with a particular faction of the conflict, through Bolbol’s desperate attempt to survive and experience a modicum of respect, we are confronted with a kind of futility. At the final checkpoint run by an extremist group, Bolbol is arrested and his siblings are allowed to proceed. Unable to pass a test demonstrating sufficient command of Islam, he is held for religious re-education. It’s here that he contemplates the emptiness of existing in constant fear:

“Bobol reflected that when the walls of fear around you crumble, there’s only a strange emptiness inside. Nothing can fill it but a new type of fear, perhaps. You don’t know what to call it, but it’s still fear, no different in flavor, really than the old type. It makes you feel like you’re the only one afraid in a tide of humanity that regards dying as the ultimate solution to the enigma of living … He was convinced this was his own personal problem, not the problem of humanity as a whole: each human losing themselves, then finding themselves again by banding together with the other humans who seemed to most resemble themselves, or else transforming themselves in order to resemble those groups . . . all drowning in emptiness.” (p.174)

I had no idea what to expect when I pulled this book off the shelf. Death Is Hard Work caught me unawares. It has, as a reading adventure, convinced me again that fiction matters. Invented stories allow authors to tell us truths we need to hear without exactly designating which ones are ours to believe. How to write about the callous inhumanity of war while bearing witness to the range of human behavior that makes war not only possible, but commonplace? Khlalifa’s answer seems to be: You make space for regular degular people to reveal their own stories of survival. As outsiders looking in we are forced to acknowledge that folks have so much more going on in their hearts and minds than living to see another day, precisely when no next day is guaranteed.

Fiction reading is the art of listening to characters as they are, not as we suppose they ought to be. That has been my lesson here. Read Death Is Hard Work. Savor its characters, its humor, its craft, and its capacity to teach us what we think we mean by “life and death.”

Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, Faber and Faber, 2019.

image by S. Spelic

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