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Death Is Hard Work

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First published in Lebanon in 2016; published in translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 12, 2019

On his father’s deathbed, Bolbol promises to bury his father’s body in the grave of his father’s sister. It is a promise he will soon regret. The grave is in Anabiya, hundreds of miles from the Damascus hospital where his father died. People in Syria are dying in droves, their bodies occupying mass graves. The “martyrs” who die for the state are no longer given funerals; corpses line the streets. Bolbol has promised to give his father’s body the kind of attention that even wealthy families can no longer provide to their dead. “The exceptional had become habitual, and tragedies were simply mundane — perhaps that was the worst part of this war.”

Accompanied by his brother Hussein and sister Fatima, Bolbol begins a harrowing journey to Anabiya. If he survives the snipers and bombs, he wants the trip to be his last familial act. His dream is to escape to a peaceful country where he can “inter himself in snow.” But the journey is perilous, particularly when the Mukhabarat (Syrian Intelligence Service) arrest the corpse on the theory that Bolbol’s father was wanted, death not being a defense to his crimes. At later checkpoints, Bolbol is challenged to prove that his father is dead, the putrid corpse itself being insufficient evidence. Syrians are not dead, Bolbol learns, until the government proclaims them dead.

Death Is Hard Work paints a vivid picture of Syria in conflict, a seemingly constant state of affairs. Bolbol is caught in the middle of a Civil War, avoiding any action that might cause the regime to question his loyalty. He has even cancelled cable channels that are disfavored by Hezbollah. He was born in an area that is controlled by the opposition, a fact that has caused thousands like him to disappear. He is also the son of an enemy of the regime, but he has passed every security check. If he were living in an area controlled by the opposition, he would behave in exactly the opposite way to prolong his survival. “Holding onto their lives, despite the misery of them, was the real goal that everyone harbored.”

To illustrate the contrast in Syrian life before and after the civil war that began with the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, the story recounts the history of Bolbol’s father, Abdel Latif. As a teacher for 40 years and a respected member of his village, Latif clung to idealistic memories of the 1960s, another time of upheaval. He remembered the 1960s as a time of elegance and erudition, while professors in the current incarnation of Syria are accused of sedition if they speak out against nationalism.

While Death Is Hard Work illustrates the difficult and dangerous lives of Syrians in a divided country, it does so by telling a universal story. Latif's story is one of  love and loss, a story suggesting that age is no barrier to a fresh love. The story of Bolbol and Hussein is one of family conflict that could arise in any culture, although not often under such terrifying circumstances.

The journey through checkpoints on a sniper-infested road is tense. Traffic is frequently halted by gun battles. Bombs fall from the sky, sometimes hitting the highway instead of their intended targets. The army and rebels and bandits are all armed; different checkpoints are controlled by different extremist militias, some of whom are not from Syria. Bolbol and his family can only hope they will survive each day and night as Latif’s corpse bloats in the back seat. Khaled Khalifa makes their fear is palpable. “The calmest of the four was the corpse, of course, which knew no fear or worry; blue tinged, it swelled with perfect equanimity and didn’t care that it might explode at any moment.”

The story dramatizes how peaceful Syrians, like peaceful people all over the world, do their best to cope with a violent environment they had no part in creating. The story is intense and, while it is relatively short, it is difficult to read without taking frequent breaks to refresh a mind that is overwhelmed by the mental stench of a decaying corpse (I had the same reaction to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel I love although the imagery still troubles me, decades after reading it).

Death Is Hard Work tells a powerful story about sympathetic characters who undergo a life-changing experience in a dangerous place and time. Books like this are essential for readers who want to understand and reflect upon the trauma that so many of the world’s residents endure.

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Death Is Hard Work is something that I wasn't sure if I wanted to read or not. Curiosity won. It's a gritty brutal story that is both disturbing and hopeful. It's informative and very intriguing. I enjoyed most of the story. Thanks to NetGalley for an arc in exchange for an honest review.
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I just couldn’t get into this book at all. I was very interested in the story idea based on the description but, because of how it was written, I had to really struggle with this one. 
Without chapter breaks, dialogue or even small breaks to divide perspectives of the different characters, this felt like reading a long run-on sentence. And those issues, along with a number of editing errors,  definitely distracted from the story, and made it impossible for me to lose myself in the writing or truly care for the characters.
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Good writing. Hard subject matter. Wanted to finish the book quickly. I wish that the foreign words were translated to I could understand them. They were hard to pick up in context.
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This novel follows three siblings on their journey to bury their father in his home village in war torn Syria. They encounter checkpoints, soldiers, rebels, old family friends and old memories along the way. They also have to face the fact that they have drifted apart from one another and the realization that they may not drift back.

This one was a little tough for me to rate. I thought the plot was solid. It's an interesting story and probably not one that many western readers would be familiar with. However, it got kind of tedious in places. I am not sure if it's a translation issue or if this is just how the author writes. This is the only book of his I've read. 

Overall, I would say worth the read and thanks to NetGalley for providing an ARC for review.
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Unfortunately, this is a DNF for me at about 40%. I gave it a valiant effort because I liked the premise - siblings must cross war-torn Syria to lay their father's body to rest. The writing is slow and meditative - not always a problem for me - but in this instance, it just didn't work. I slowly found myself not caring.
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Amazing read! The author wrote a story that was interesting and moved at a pace that kept me engaged. The characters were easy to invest in.
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In a country torn apart by war, death comes indiscriminately. There are so many just waiting to die, to be relieved of the misery that their lives have become, and yet, it is not easily done. In Death is Hard Work, a family embarks on a journey to carry out their father's last wish. A grim errand which takes vastly longer than they anticipated. Meanwhile, old family resentments fester along with the body of the recently departed.
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The story starts out beautifully. It woke me up to the fact that nothing is simple in a combat zone. A son's promise to ensure his father is buried in his hometown cemetery seems so simple. But just try transporting a body through Syria's war devastation. But toward the end of the story the description of the decaying body was just too much. I could not continue reading.
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This book has a good story line, and I would love to have really gotten into, but it moved just a little too slow for me. I feel like there should have been more to keep me interested, instead of me really having to make myself stay on task to finish the book.
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What an amazing commitment Bolbol made to his father- to take his body to their ancestral village  two and a half hours away- in the middle of a civil war.  He gathers up his sister Fatima and brother Hussein for the journey.  These siblings have a lot to work out, even as they cope with the challenges of living in Syria.  What happens to them on the trip- well- no spoilers but things do not go well.  This is a slim volume but it does pack a punch.  Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.  Try this for the opportunity to read Khalifa's work and for insight into life in a war zone.
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Having promised his dying father, Abdel Latif, that he will transport his body back to his hometown for burial, Bolbol enlists the help of his estranged brother Hussein and sister Fatima to carry out Abdel Latif’s wishes. But this simple promise is complicated by the fact that they are in Syria in the midst of a civil war, and the trip that they optimistically believe will take a day soon becomes a nightmarish odyssey where they are detained, questioned, bombed and imprisoned—all while their father’s body decomposes in their van along with the last remaining family bonds between them..

When I read the synopsis of this book, it was impossible not to think of it as the Syrian As I Lay Dying. And, in fact, Death is Hard Work does share a lot of similarities with the Faulkner novel, not the least of which is the surreal, almost absurdist, tone and the litany of troubles that complicate both journeys. What sets this book apart, however, is its depiction of a country torn by civil war, and the injustices, indignities and, ultimately, the inhumanity that brings. Author Abdel Latif was born near Aleppo and continues to live in Damascus despite the ongoing violence, and the realism that he is able to bring to the book’s setting as a result is both stunning and horrifying. As such, it’s a difficult book to read, but one which is well worth the effort and deserving of a wide readership. Recommended to anyone who wants to understand more about the Syrian conflict.

Many thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for providing me an ARC of this book in return for my honest review.
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In a 2016 interview with Arablit.com, Syrian author Khaled Khalifa disclosed that ‘When you live in a war, in the middle of the regime’s daily reproduction of hysterical fascism, you ought to acquire new habits in order to stop yourself from reproducing fear.’ He conceded that the three worst habits he has since accrued, in a Syria he has refused to leave since the outbreak of the ongoing unrest, have been lethargy, forgetfulness and scepticism in everything being said. And yet, despite his newfound coping techniques, he attributes his overall success in dodging death so far as down to nothing more than ‘chance’.
 
And this brings us to the author’s recent novel ‘Death is Hard Work’ which deals with war and the ravaging metamorphosis it impinges itself not only on a geographical space but also on the psychology of its dwellers who have to deal with the exceptional becoming habitual, and tragedies are mundane. 'Everyone who loses their pride becomes a miser of a sort; their self-importance increases, their eyes die out, and their resentments accumulate,' writes Khalifa at one point. 

Translated by Leri Price, who also translated Khalifa’s ‘In Praise of Hatred’ that was a finalist for the IPAF prize as well as his fourth novel ‘No Knives in the Kitchens of This City’, that won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2013, the novel will see its English-language publication this February.
 
In this latest novel, set in a ravaged Syria four years in which a Civil War has now restyled into a war by proxy, and death has become so commonplace and robbed of its usual distress to the extent that the inhabitants of the city have come to look upon the living as simply ‘pre-dead’, Abdel Latif surprises everyone by dying of natural causes in his hospital bed in Damascus. His final wish, he reveals on his deathbed to his eldest son Bolbol, is to be buried in the family plot in their ancestral village of Anabiya situated in the Aleppo region.
 
Though Abdel was hardly an ideal father, and though Bolbol is estranged from his siblings, this son who yearns to ‘go back to his nest and skulk in his room like a rat until his dream of moving to a faraway country’ is realised, nevertheless conscientiously persuades his older brother Hussein (who had been his son’s favourite until he turned pimp and drug dealer) and his sister Fatima to accompany him and the body to Anabiya, which is―after all―only a two-hour drive from Damascus.
 
Naturally in a country where time is now measured by soldiers stationed at checkpoints dotted along their entire perilous journey ‘entitled to pass judgement on any person for any infringement, execute them, and throw them in a mass grave, or else just leave them where they fell for their family to pick up and take away’, the journey takes them days not hours to complete. Despite all that and the fact that Bolbol ‘couldn’t think of anyone having successfully managed to transport a body all the way [to Anabiya] in three whole years’, the siblings are optimistic that they can, until they hit the first checkpoint and the soldiers deliberate on whether or not they are going to arrest the corpse.
 
And so as the hard work of transporting Abdel Latif’s body begins, so do a series of ludicrous, absurd events in which the three siblings negotiate, beg and bribe their way for a safe passage to Anabiya. Along the way we become privy to the reasons behind their estrangement from each other as well as with their father, a delayed ‘revolutionary’ and believer in the redemptive power of love. We hear of Fatima’s sister-in-law’s rape and her fiancee’s abandonment, we hear of how a woman’s six brothers in the Free Army were now forced to fight alongside the Islamic extremists because they had more money, and we are told the story of Layla, Abdel Latif’s sister, a feminist before her time who had paid the ultimate price for her convictions.

Khalifa captures the general debilitating mood that has laid claim on Syria’s inhabitants so that they are stuck in limbo, terrified to venture into an unknown future while acknowledging the futility of turning back. By confining the characters for most of the novel within the environ of a minibus, with a putrid corpse at such close proximity so that they are ‘breathing death as no one had ever breathed in the death of a loved one’, all while subjugating them to round-the-clock peril in which even the details of their identity card could spell catastrophe, soon creates a claustrophobic cabin fever effect that eventually leads to the most violent and disturbing part of the novel.

Despite the vey sparse dialogue in the novel, and the pervading silence between the siblings, this is far from a quiet novel. Bolbol’s clamorous internal monologue as he meditates on death in general and what his father’s body really means to him, as well as his reflections on his family history, while also agonising over his countrymen’s state of affairs resound with a brutal, cold-hearted, frankness with regards all of humanity. One shudders to contemplate the possibility that Bolbol’s gloomy prognosis on humans and humanity, on death and life, on love and war, on defeat and victory, manifest from the author’s first hand experience of living in today’s Syria. Sadly, judging by the news that filters out every day, it doesn’t seem such a farfetched assumption to make.
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This novel is a gorgeous meditation on death, grief, family, and war.  It seems like it wouldn't take very long since essentially, the main plot of the book is this sibling trio taking their father's body to a town 2.5 hours away that'll take a bit longer due to the ongoing civil war in Syria.  However, the reader doesn't just get to see the family dynamics between the siblings in the car; we're treated to their pasts and how they've shaped these people into who they are at the time the novel takes place.  Each and every character is richly fleshed out from beginning to end, and they come across as actual people right in front of you rather than characters on a page in a book.

The ending is a little odd, but I don't mean that in a bad way!  There just isn't any real resolution to Bolbol's story, but I think that's why I love it so much.  In real life, we don't always get closure or neat, even if ambiguous, endings to certain periods in our lives, and Bolbol is left at the end of the novel in such a way.  How the ending is handled is also another sign of Khaled Khalifa's skill as a writer because it's incredibly difficult for a writer to pull off an ambiguous ending that isn't really an ending at all, but Khalifa does it so authentically that that's exactly how it feels: authentic.

Lastly, the translation for the novel by Leri Price was superb.  Sometimes I'm hesitant to read novels that have been translated from another language because so much of the original novel's meaning and language can get lost in the switch to English, but it was extremely well done.  If anything, I only wish that I were fluent in Arabic so that I could fully appreciate the novel in its original language since I'm sure English doesn't quite do it the amount of justice that would receive if I had read it in Arabic.  

I have a feeling this will be a book I come back to again and again.  I only wish I had the time and the words to write out just how truly powerful this book was for me.  Highly and thoroughly recommend.
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Three siblings promise their dying father that they will bury his body in his hometown.  the fulfillment of that promise in the throws of the Syrian War is difficult and dangerous.  This novel follows the three on their journey with flashbacks that describe them, their father and their lives and relationships.  Parts of this ere amazing, but the pacing is slow and the overall storyline is sometimes a bit rudderless.
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