Excerpt of Sinan Antoon’s New Novel, The Pomegranate Alone, on Jadaliyya

If death is a postman, then I am one of those who receive his letters every day. from The Pomegranate Alone.

The Pomegranate Alone, released this summer in Arabic, is Sinan Antoon’s second novel. Antoon has also published two collections of poetry (only Baghdad Blues is available in English) and translated Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence, which will be forthcoming from Archipelago next spring.

Antoon’s first novel was the strong and critically acclaimed I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody,  a meditation on language and imprisonment that was co-translated by the author and Rebecca C. Johnson.

The Pomegranate Alone promises to be a meditation on language and death (and perhaps also a sort of imprisonment). The opening of the excerpt is breathtaking, as we move from what might be realism into a jarring dream landscape. The dialogue between the dream-Reem and the dreamer-narrator brings things into (surreal) focus.

I was about to hug and kiss her, but she warned me: Don’t kiss me. Wash me first so we can be together and then…”

“What? But you are still alive. Why would I wash you?”

“Wash me so we can be together. I missed you so much.”

“But you are not dead!”

“Wash me darling. . . Wash me so we can be together.”

After this, horror enters the dream landscape, as it must. I think what most surprised me was the quietness of the move from dream into waking world. There is no break in the text, just “The rain kept falling on the empty bench.” And then, in the next paragraph, “I woke up panting and sweating.”

The wakened narrator meditates on the change in death since his father’s days as a Baghdad undertaker. There is a bit of awkward tense shifting, and at times the prose does feel translated, a little stiff:

But death in those years was timid and not as prolific compared to death these days, which is addicted and obsessive.

But mostly, the poetic imagery flows:

If death is a postman, then I am one of those who receive his letters every day. I am the one who takes them out carefully from their 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 last reader: the grave.

The section on Jadaliyya was translated entirely by the author. Antoon has said on Facebook that he’s planning to translate the whole novel himself, but I’ve seen nothing about when the translation might appear in English.  (You can read two reviews of the Arabic text, in As -Safir and Dar Al Hayat.)

Anyhow, I’m intrigued.