Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, Leri Price
Publication date: February 12, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Cultural, Fiction, Literary
Bolbol’s father has just died in Damascus. Before he did, he made one final request of his son—he wants to be buried in the family’s plot in his hometown. It’s two hours away and without thinking Bolbol agrees. It’s only as he’s contacting his sister, Fatima, and his brother, Hussein, that the enormity of his promise hits him. This is Syria, a country being destroyed by its government’s attacks on its own citizens. In Khaled Khalifa’s Death is Hard Work what would once have been a quick trip will turn into a Kafkaesque nightmare.
Death is Hard Work is a dark novel, not in the way of a horror film , but in the way of deadened emotion. It’s set in a country where a two-hour trip takes three days due to impassable roads, government checkpoints, snipers, the secret police, and interrogations. The constant presence of death is enervating and Khalifa shows that with his characters, especially Bolbol. Having lived in Damascus and with no inclination to leave the city, he has no idea that the trip is virtually impossible. But still he perseveres, gathering his sister and older brother to go with him. They agree, despite the fact that they have been estranged for the last decade and play no part in each other’s lives. Some hard-to-grasp form of family honor takes over their rational minds, but within hours the obstacles are already such that Hussein wants to leave his father’s body by the side of the road. Because, yes, they are literally transporting his body with them in a minivan, resting on blocks of ice.
It feels wrong to say death is farcical but that is precisely what happens, in the most gruesome ways possible, in Death is Hard Work. At one point, their father’s body is arrested at a checkpoint, because he was once wanted years ago by the secret police. Then there is the fact of three siblings who don’t even like each other being trapped by a sense of duty in a van with a rapidly decomposing corpse. The novel feels like a macabre version of Waiting for Godot—something important is supposed to happen, but the truth of the matter is the waiting itself. Except this waiting takes place at checkpoints, in isolation cells, in flashbacks to scenes of terror by government. Basically, the hellscape that is modern day Syria.
The inhabitants of the city regarded everyone they saw as not so much “alive” as “pre-dead”. It gave them a little relief from their frustration and anger.
A family corpse is not the only way Khalifa drives home the surreal nature of Syrian life. There is normal conversation amongst colleagues about how best to wrap your windows in plastic so when they are shattered by bombs or gunfire they don’t turn into shrapnel. Or the best way to spend hours stuck at a checkpoint. The fact that in many towns starving dogs without owners, feast on the dead because there is no one to bury all the corpses or feed the animals.
If this is making you wonder why you would read this book, I understand. Death is Hard Work is not an enjoyable novel, but with its absurdist (to Westerners) premise and lethargic, fatalist characters it conveys an almost invasive sense of place. In a mere 192 pages it stamped me with a greyed-out numbness. It’s also worth noting that Khalifa is a Syrian native and lives there to this day, leading me to believe that his fiction is more fact than imagination. For that reason alone, I think this newly translated novel is important reading, especially for those who like looking beyond the comfort of their own worldview.
It is hard to discover your self is nothing but a delusion. You consider yourself aloof from the oppression and power of the masses, but in the end you realize any individuality you might have seen in yourself is a lie and that you’re just one more worn-out pair of shoes walking the streets.