Thursday, 3 April 2014

'The Corpse Washer' by Sinan Antoon (Review - IFFP 2014, Number 10)

Stop number ten on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize magical mystery tour takes us back to Iraq, a country we last visited in encountering The Iraqi Christ.  Today's book also has a religious side as we meet a young man involved with sending people on their way to the afterlife - with a few bowls of water...

The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon - Yale University Press
(translated by the author)
What's it all about?
Jawad, the son of an Iraqi mghassilchi (washer of corpses), is expected to follow in his father's footsteps, especially after his brother's death in the Iran-Iraq war.  The young man has other ideas though, having been inspired by one of his teachers to become an artist, later choosing to concentrate on sculpture.  Braving his father's disapproval, he decides to escape the cool, dark wash-house and dreams of studying abroad.

However, these dreams are dashed by the outbreak, and aftermath, of the Second Gulf War.  With Baghdad occupied by American troops, the idea of time at a European university seems light-years away, and when his father dies, Jawad is forced to rethink his decisions.  Money is scarce, but in a city rocked by sectarian violence, corpses are not...

The Corpse Washer was a surprise to most of the Shadow Panelists, perhaps the least-known of the books on the longlist.  It was definitely a nice surprise though, an elegant little book which gives a fascinating insight into a time and place which, while  known superficially from the news, is in reality almost completely alien.

The book begins by introducing the concept of the mghaysil, a place for Muslims to be ritually cleaned before being buried.  Jawad's father is a master of the art, and for decades he has been preparing the people of the city for their final resting place in a calm, professional, caring manner.  At this point, the writer describes the process masterfully, choosing to use short, simple unhurried sentences, dispensing with sequencing words; it all gives the impression of a well-rehearsed ritual, taking away any mixed feelings the reader may have on entering a house of the dead.

This life is not for Jawad, though.  Even on his first professional visit, there to help his father out during the summer holidays, we sense that this is not what he wants for himself.  On a later visit, the signs are even more ominoums
"I got to the mghaysil, the washhouse.  The door was ajar.  I crossed the walkway and saw the Qur'anic verse "Every soul shall taste death" in beautiful Diwani script hanging over the door.  The yellowish paint on the wall was peeling away because of the humidity from the washing.  Father was sitting in the left corner of the side room on a wooden chair listening to the radio.  Death's traces - its scents and memories - were present in every inch of that place.  As if death were the real owner and Father merely an employee working for it and not for God, as he liked to think."
p.11 (Yale University Press, 2013)
For Jawad, this is the realm of death, and for a young man bursting with life, escape is the only possible choice.

As much as The Corpse Washer is a story of Jawad's choices, it's also a picture of Iraq during the American occupation.  This is the period that Antoon focuses on, and the occupying forces, while only briefly shown, do not come off in a good light, being portrayed as uninterested in preventing the inevitable decay of Baghdad.  Of course, suicide bombers and power cuts don't help the situation any, and when Jawad's uncle returns from Europe for a visit, he's astounded by what he sees:
"Wasn't this the most beautiful neighborhood?  Look at it now.  Then you have all this garbage, dust, barbed wires, and tanks.  There aren't any women walking down the street anymore!  This is not the Baghdad I'd imagined.  Not just in terms of the people.  Even the poor palm trees are tired and no one takes care of them.  Believe me, these Americans, with their ignorance and racism, will make people long for Saddam's days." (p.96)
Baghdad was a city long known for tolerance and learning, but the American occupation, far from restoring the city to its former glories, unfortunately appears to have made things worse.

In the end, though, the reader always returns to Jawad and his journey.  Despite his best attempts to escape, through art, love and flight, he is destined to return to the mghaysil, unable to throw aside a rather weighty legacy.  Like the old pomegranate tree outside the wash-house, kept fresh by the water running from the body of corpses, Jawad's life is made possible by the wages of death, his whole existence financed by corpses.  The question we are left with is whether that's really such a bad thing...

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
My initial feeling was not quite.  It's not that the book isn't very good - on the contrary, it's probably one of the finds of the longlist.  However, while there are few real stand-outs this year, the level of the top eight or so books is very high, and I'm not sure this one quite makes it into the top six. 

One reason for this is the way the American occupation is handled.  With the Iran-Iraq war and the brutality of the Saddam regime glossed over, it seems a little strange to focus purely on this period as a bad one.  No doubt this would not come across in the same way to an Iraqi reading the original Arabic text, but to me the style of the book as a whole was interrupted by some of these scenes.

I'm also on the fence a little about the self-translation decision.  It's definitely not a bad translation, and you sense that the writer has been able to give the book a flavour that an outsider might not have been able to recreate.  However, there were a few inconsistencies and odd phrasings which I felt that a more accomplished translator would have ironed out.  Of course, the main problem with translating the book yourself is that everyone knows you did it - and is waiting to pounce on errors ;)

Coming back to the question, I'm starting to change my mind a little.  It's been about a week since I finished The Corpse Washer, and its stocks have continued to rise.  Hmm - I think I'll reserve judgement here ;)

Will it make the shortlist?
I think it'll go close :)  I wonder which book will impress the judges more - the calm, elegant prose of The Corpse Washer or the horrifying, heart-breaking violence of Ma Jian's The Dark Road.  If they decide to go down the literary path, I think Antoon's book may have a shot, but this is the IFFP, and you never know what those judges are thinking...

Time to wrap things up in Iraq then and get moving.  No need to hurry though, as our next destination isn't too far away - I'll meet you all in Jerusalem for the next leg of our IFFP journey :)