New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. 200 pages. $22.00.
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A car bomb explodes in a garage in Baghdad. Shrapnel and car metal tear through bellies, faces, and limbs. Seven are killed, fourteen wounded. Across town, another bomb explodes in a street full of shops, mixing blood, broken glass, and cash. Four dead. A bomb next to a tax office kills six. A bomb near a restaurant kills three. A bomb kills five. A bomb kills two. A bomb kills three.
Old news, you’d think, back from the bad old days of the war. But these attacks all happened on December 8, 2013. More than 8,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the last year from civil violence, at least 400 in December alone, returning death tolls to levels not seen since 2008, as the country slides from permanent crisis toward Syria-style anarchy. The war the US launched in 2003 is over, but the fires it lit still burn.
The estimated number of men, women, and children killed as a result of the American invasion of 2003 remains contentious, ranging from slightly over 100,000 to more than a million, depending on how the numbers are added up, who is adding them, and which deaths count. It’s easy to count the IED victims, beheadings, and collateral damage. But do we count the disappeared? The old man whose heart stopped because of a nearby bomb? A woman killed by a cancer likely caused by toxic military waste, a cancer left untreated because of crippled health care infrastructure?
Whether or not these deaths “count,” they are all groaning for burial, and it is the fate of Jawad Kazim—the narrator and eponymous mghassilchi, or “corpse washer,” of Sinan Antoon’s second novel—to prepare them. It is a fate Jawad resists as long as he can. Rebelling against his father’s wish that he carry on the family business at the mghaysil, the ritual washing hut, Jawad turns to painting, sculpting, and teaching art, and even tries to escape to Jordan. In the end, however, forced by circumstance, he returns reluctantly to the mghaysil’s marble bench, the careful practice of washing and shrouding, and the crooked pomegranate tree growing behind the hut.
This pomegranate tree, watered by the death-wash from within the mghaysil, becomes a central metaphor. It thrives by feeding on the dead, as Jawad does, and as the novelist must, as well. But the tree also stands alone, lean and isolate. The Corpse Washer was titled in its Arabic original “The Pomegranate Alone,” a reference to the novel’s closing lines; this title frames Jawad not through his occupation, but through his solitude. The episodic plot of The Corpse Washer tells the story of Jawad’s many relationships with teachers, family members, lovers, and friends, and how they are one by one peeled from his life by death, disappearance, and exile, until he is left at last alone with his tree and his corpses.
His ultimate solitude finds its emblem in Giacometti’s lean statuary, which exerts a powerful influence on his artistic ambitions. Jawad’s thoughts on Giacometti help us make sense of this sometimes elusive novel:
His statues were conspicuously thin, as if they were threads or thin mummies exhumed out of tombs. The body was always naked and with minimal features. Some works were of a hand waving alone without a body. Humans, in Giacometti’s world, be they men or women, appeared sad and lonely, with no clear features, emerging from the unknown and striding toward it.
There was a page in the book that had quotations by Giacometti. One of them stayed with me. He said that what he’d wanted to sculpt was not man but the shadow he leaves behind.
Like Giacometti’s sculptures, Antoon’s characters are minimalist, abstract, ravaged. They have a late-modernist, existentialist feel, like figures out of Sartre or Camus. If we might say that surrealist short-story writer Hassan Blasim is the Iraqi Kafka, then Antoon would be the Iraqi Beckett, paring story down to a shadow-play of memory and speech. As bodies in Beckett are reduced to doughy machines and echo’s bones, so in Antoon’s novel they are always already corpses and haunting dream-visages.
Also like Beckett, Antoon sees time and narrative as problems. The Corpse Washer begins in a dream, of a long-lost lover lying naked on the mghaysil’s marble washing bench. Seemingly alive, the woman tells the dreamer, “Wash me so we can be together,” and as rain begins to fall, he begins to caress her. This anxious, erotic fantasy takes a violent turn as masked men drive up in a Humvee and attack. The dreamer sees himself beheaded, then wakes. The year is indeterminate, the location vague, and the narrator unnamed. As the novel goes on, we come to know Jawad through his memories of the past and his nightmares of the present, but the time is out of joint—events come with shocking suddenness and in disorienting sequence:
I was startled as I uncovered the face of one of the men I washed yesterday. He looked exactly like a dear friend of mine who’d died years ago. The same rectangular features, high cheek bones, and long nose. The skin and eyes were coffee brown. His eyes were shut, of course. Their sockets were somewhat hollow. The thick eyebrows looked as if they were about to shake hands. But, I said to myself, I’ve already seem him dead in my own arms once before.
The only reliable truths in The Corpse Washer are bodies, and bodies are corpses waiting to be washed. “The living die or depart, and the dead always come,” Jawad reflects. “I had thought that life and death were two separate worlds with clearly marked boundaries. But now I know that they are conjoined, sculpting each other.”
A poet and translator, Antoon is intimately concerned with language. His first novel, I’jaam (City Lights, 2007), calls to mind Georges Perec’s oulipian La Disparition. Antoon’s I’jaam presents a found manuscript, by a political prisoner now deceased, written without the diacritical dots differentiating Arabic consonants. The manuscript’s editor, a Ba’athist apparatchik, has been charged with adding the requisite marks. The novel is thus structured by textual ambiguities dramatizing the problem of making literature under totalitarianism. As the editor works through the prisoner’s story of detention and torture, struggling to choose between “law” and “disorder” or “feces” and “species,” depending on how many dots he thinks a particular word might need, we come to see that I’jaam functions as both a satire of Ba’athist Iraq and an Orwellian meditation on politics and language.
Like I’jaam, The Corpse Washer is difficult to read as “just” a novel. Given the political sentiments surrounding the eight-year American occupation of Iraq, many readers may come to Antoon expecting him to offer something digestibly didactic. Anyone looking for easy lessons, moral uplift, or liberal satisfaction, however, will be disappointed. What The Corpse Washer does—with painstaking attention, narrative sophistication, and emotional restraint—is portray the evisceration of Iraq’s middle class by despotism, sanctions, and three wars, and the final collapse of Iraqi society from a decade of brutal, mismanaged occupation, all through the story of one damaged life. The Corpse Washer is a powerful and important novel of the Iraq War, and a necessary counterpoint to American stories focused almost exclusively on the suffering and trauma of Iraq’s occupiers.
Historians and politicians will continue to argue over which lives “count,” while the bodies pile higher and higher. Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer offers a moving literary elegy not only for the numberless Iraqi dead, but also for those who remain to bury them. It must be read.