‘The Corpse Washer’: A Novel Sculpted by Death

Although it became The Corpse Washer in English translation, Sinan Antoon’s second novel was originally titled وحدها شجرة الرمان, The Pomegranate Alone:

imagesThis original title drives at the heart of the novel, which – although much of it takes place during the violent US occupation era – is not marked by anger or violence, but by a melancholic loneliness. This is the time in Iraq’s history, the narrator says, when, “Everyone in Baghdad felt like a stranger in his own country.”

The slightly formal, poetic tone is marked throughout by its alienation from its surroundings and from the narrator’s own memories,  At points if feels as though the narrator, Jawad, is the last living human, alone with his corpses and their stories. Jawad is an artist, so perhaps his alienation was always a given. But what begins with parents who don’t understand accelerates to a dead brother, to a fiancée who disappears and returns only in his nightmares, to the death of his father, to taking over his father’s lonely corpse-washing business.

The novel’s English title is drawn from Jawad’s unintended and unwanted profession: his father’s trade. It is a job that Jawad is pushed into after his father dies during the US-led invasion: The drive to bury him, against the tied of the invading forces, is one of the novel’s most painful tragicomic moments.

Jawad has  with few other opportunities and, post-2003, death makes for brisk trade.

Jawad’s fiancée, Reem, is a bright spot in Jawad’s memories: a beautiful, self-possessed woman who nearly banishes the tone of alienation when she is center-stage. But Reem is never quite there: From the opening page, we know she is lost to the narrator. When later we discover why, the reason feels a little forced, but it further seals Jawad off from the world. Another opportunity for love arrives, but he cannot reach for it, as his heart is “full of death.”

As the novel progresses, the stories of love recede and Jawad’s nightmares, and the stories of the corpses brought to him, spread out into a larger and larger space.

Jawad’s sympathetic Uncle Sabri visits briefly from Berlin, after the fall of Saddam Hussein. One of the places Sabri visits is the al-Mutanabbi book market, where he buys “first editions of some of al-Jawahiri’s poetry collections and one of Sa’di Yusif’s, togheter with some Jurji Zaydan novels and Neruda’s autobiography.” But, although these books still exist as small bright lanterns, a yet darker future awaits. Uncle Sabri is there when the electricity flips back on and Paul Bremer announces a new ruling council for the country:

“The council was a hodgepodge of names supposedly representing the spectrum of Iraqi society, but we had never heard of most of them. What they had in common was that each name was preceded by its sect: Sunni, Shia, Christian … We were not accustomed to such a thing. My uncle was furious when he saw the secretary general of the Iraqi Communist Party sitting with the other members. …

“He waved his hand and said, ‘Look at him, for God’s sake. They put him there as a Shiite, and not because he represents an ideological trend or a party with its own history of political struggle. What a shame that this is what it all comes down to. Now an entire history of resisting dictatorship and rejecting war is being trashed. Communists will be like all these other fuckers and crooks. Look at them. Each has a belly weighing a ton.”

Before he leaves, Sabri buys Jawad and his mother a satellite dish, which becomes the “only window” through which they can “see the world and the extent of our own devastation”. Yet this small breathing space is also an agent of sectarian thinking, and thus further alienation.

As the narrator himself reflects, the book is shaped by death:  “I had thought that life and death were two separate worlds with clearly marked boundaries. But now I know they are conjoined, sculpting each other.”

The translation is done by the author, and at times the language is so much like a miniature, or a poem, that it feels too constrained. Yet it also heightens the sense of alienation, of a character who cannot quite reach through to the outside world, even in these words.

Read an except:

From the opening of the novel and other selected excerpts