I can almost hear death saying: “I am what I am and haven’t changed at all. I am but a postman.”
If death is a postman, then I receive his letters every day. I am the one who opens carefully the bloodied and torn envelopes. I am the one who washes them, who removes the stamps of death and dries and perfumes them, mumbling what I don’t entirely believe in. Then I wrap them carefully in white so they may reach their final reader – the grave.
But the letters are piling up, Father! Tenfold more than what you used to see in the span of a week now pass before me in a day or two. If you were alive, Father, would you say that that is fate and God’s will? I wish you were here so I could leave Mother with you and escape without feeling guilty. You were heavily armed with faith, and that made your heart a castle. My heart, by contrast, is an abandoned house whose windows are shattered and doors unhinged. Ghosts play inside it, and the winds wail. (p. 3)
The ten years since the US-led invasion have been torturous ones for Iraqi citizens, both those living inside the country and those who had left as emigres years before. IEDs, sectarian violence, shortages of items that most Westerners take for granted – this is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the pains and travails endured. How does one put voice to such grief and anguish, especially considering that one long-desired event, the execution of Saddam Hussein, was more than balanced out with atrocities committed by Americans or other parties who had a keen interest in destabilizing post-war Iraq.
Yet Sinan Antoon in his recently-translated book The Corpse Washer manages to make a herculean effort to do just that. In just 185 pages, he eloquently addresses the myriad conflicts and frustrated dreams of Iraqis through the point-of-view of a Shi’ite corpse washer, Jawad. Moving back and forth in time, from the 1980s to the late 2000s, Jawad’s life, first as the semi-rebellious younger son of a corpse washing father and then as a “failed” artist who returns grudgingly to the ancient and humble practice of his forefathers, mirrors closely the lives of many Iraqis who saw their dreams arrested in the tumult of the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988 and its numerous disastrous sequels.
The Corpse Washer works on several levels. It describes in sometimes painfully realistic fashion Jawad’s sense of being trapped in a situation that is not of his own doing and yet one that has made him the person who he is. We see his exiled uncle return, learn of his older brother’s fate, and witness two doomed loves of his. By themselves, these would make for a good literary fiction, but Antoon also works in parallels with the social situation in Iraq. There are short yet heart-achingly poignant moments such as the story of a Sunni relating the story of an unnamed Shi’ite who he had briefly befriended before a car bombing. In these tales, often tragic and yet possessing a sense of dignity in the midst of grief, Jawad is the nexus through which a flood of symbolic and concrete meanings and events are filtered.
It is hard to identify any obvious flaws in the story. Antoon adroitly moves back and forth in narrative time in his sketching of Jawad’s character and how he has come to be an exemplar of contemporary Iraqi society. There is grief, yes, but also warm embraces and shared silences that connect the characters. The prose alternates between poetic descriptions such as the one quoted above to sharp dialogue that feels raw and visceral in its directness in addressing the joys and sufferings of Jawad’s family and friends. The end result is a gripping, moving story that simultaneous works as a well-drawn portrait of a conflicted dreamer and as a metaphor for post-invasion Iraq. Antoon’s ability to avoid maudlin scenes or heavy-handed allegories is a testimony to his skill as a writer and through the first half of 2013, The Corpse Washer was the finest 2013 US release that I have read. Very highly recommended.