Chronicles of the Iraqi nightmare

Chronicles of the Iraqi nightmare

William Armstrong -
Chronicles of the Iraqi nightmare ‘The Corpse Washer’ by Sinan Antoon (Yale University Press, 200 pages, $13)

The novelist Sinan Antoon has been described in the Arab press as “the chronicler of the Iraqi nightmare” and “the voice of the disaffections of modern Iraq.” His second novel “The Corpse Washer” is short in length but ambitious in scope, giving a broad sweep of the country’s blood-soaked recent decades by focusing on the travails of a single character.

HDN The book tells the story of protagonist Jawad from his boyhood at school to his adulthood in Baghdad, through the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, the first Gulf War, and the chaos of sectarian civil war that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion. His father works as a “mghassilchi” washing and shrouding dead bodies in a Shia neighborhood, and he wants Jawad to take on the family business. Jawad, however, wants to focus on sculpture and art, enrolling at the Baghdad Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1980s. He meets women and tries to escape the gloomy future offered by the corpse washing shop, but the steady job provided by his father’s shop becomes impossible to avoid as the dead bodies stack up and Iraq is engulfed by spiraling violence.

The washing and shrouding of corpses is described in a number of beautiful, near-hypnotic passages. Over the door of the shop hangs the Quranic verse, “Every soul shall taste death,” which is repeated like a dark mantra throughout the novel. Like the coffin maker who profits from the death of his fellow villagers in the Chekhov story “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” Jawad does a brisk business as the corpses stack up over the years, but unlike Chekhov’s coffin maker he is tortured by his work. “Didn’t I eat and drink what death earned for us?” he reflects at one point. “Death’s fingers were crawling everywhere around me. I couldn’t shake the notion that death was providing my sustenance … 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?’” He is haunted by recurring nightmares and ultimately becomes a hollowed out shell, an emotional vacuum.

Throughout the book, brief moments of peace and serenity are repeatedly interrupted by death and chaos. Whenever a fragile normality, warmth, humane relations, love or art are able to occur, death abruptly cuts in. This mirrors the broader motif of the book and makes for a grim, relentless read. The whole text is tightly constructed, as methodical as Jawad’s washing and shrouding of the corpses.

It is worth contrasting Antoon’s style with that of fellow overseas-based Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, whose stories have attracted a lot of attention in the West, particularly after his collection “The Corpse Exhibition” appeared in English last year. Despite their macabre titles' similarities, the two writers are very different. While Blasim looks for a visceral reaction from his readers, Antoon is more contemplative, more humane. In fact, Blasim’s stories start to look rather thin when read next to Antoon’s carefully weaved work. The balance in “The Corpse Washer” occasionally goes slightly off and the voice of the author sometimes steps too visibly into the narrative, but on the whole it remains a delicately balanced novel.

In Arabic, the book was published as “Only the Pomegranate Tree,” referring to the tree that grows in the yard outside the corpse washing shop. The tree feeds on the water that flows down to its roots after washing the dead, and Jawad never allows himself to eat its fruit. Towards the end of the book he contemplates the tree’s dark soil: “Wet with the washing water it had just drunk. It’s a wondrous tree, I thought. Drinking the water of death for decades now, but always budding, blossoming, and bearing fruit every spring.” The metaphor may be a little heavy handed, but the novel itself is perhaps the grim fruit of death.