A new voice in fiction, at least for Americans, is that of Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa, whose new novel, “Death is Hard Work”, is both grimly humorous and deadly serious concurrently. Khalifa, who is still living in Damascus, sets this new novel right in the middle of the Syrian civil war. Three siblings, all grown and living in different parts of Syria, are charged with bringing the body of their just dead father back to his small hometown for burial. The imposing, slightly larger-than-life father has been very active on the rebel side of the civil war, and has had the “luck” to die a natural death , in a hospital, unlike the thousands whose bodies will be strewn about the roads which the three grown children must traverse to get the body buried. (Often during this wretched, sometimes hilarious, three day trip, the middle son, who’s driving the van with his siblings and the corpse, wants to dump the body by the side of any road as their journey becomes more and more complex). Papers, endless documentation, are required to get from checkpoint to checkpoint along the way, those checkpoints being controlled sometimes by rebel forces, more often by government troops. Bribes sometimes work, sometimes don’t; the endless bureaucracies established both by the “old” pre-war systems and the new (invented on the spot) make grim but either funny or frightening (or both) reading as we readers wonder if this journey will ever finish and our three siblings arrive in one piece , which they ultimately do.
Along the way, we learn about the childhoods of the three (more of the two boys than of their sister, who was simply raised to marry and care for her husband and his family), and of the lost love of the oldest son, who’s still in contact with his now long married old college girlfriend (who will help our three to safety on this journey in their SUV) and who ruminates on the senselessness of his adult life. The middle son’s been a rebel within the family, and has lived by petty cons (skills which become enabling on this journey to and from hell). The father’s sister, when presented as a girl with a husband, torches herself to death on her wedding day and has become something of a myth amongst village women in particular; the father’s life has been fulfilled but filled with the fantasies we all carry with us, of the greatness he didn’t quite attain (but it’s more than any of the children have accomplished).
These three adults have the opportunity to learn to know and possibly like one another throughout this long, harrowing, terrifying journey; the author’s perspectives on the utter pointlessness of the surrounding death and destruction all over the Syria they are traveling are thus brilliantly rendered between and amongst the daily vicissitudes of the journey to his burial. Khalifa thus mitigates what could be a constant meditation on war and death with just enough black humor to keep a balance in the writing and the plot. And, like many families after a death and during the upcoming funeral, these three children end up hating one another even more than they did when the journey begins: this observation on the writer’s part is particularly astute, as, in my own experience, rites of passages in families often bring out the worst, not the best, in them. Secondary characters along the way are fascinating, well delineated, and represent a range of characters, noble and ignoble. That, as the title suggests, “death is hard work” refers both to the paperwork and the dysfuntional hospital system in the midst of constant death and to the difficulties that this death causes between and amongst the siblings, too. It’s a powerful novel, even in tone, beautifully written, by a very courageous writer who’s still in Syria staring death in the face.