Wall Street Journal reviews Khalifa’s “Death is hard work”: “Brilliant” and “Unforgettable”

12 February 2019 38 views No Comment Email This Post Email This Post Print This Post Print This Post

Khalifa-SmallA review by Sam Sacks, for the Wall Street Journal, Februay

Khaled Khalifa’s “Death Is Hard Work” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 180 pages, $25) begins with an old man’s dying wish: that his children bury him in the family plot in the town of his birth, a few hundred kilometers from the capital. It might be a reasonable request in normal times, but this is contemporary Syria, where to walk to the market is to risk being killed. “Better to tend to the dead,” the man’s son Bolbol decides in resignation; “after all, they now outnumbered the living.” So begins this brilliant, blackly absurdist road-trip novel, a restaging of “As I Lay Dying” in the thick of the world’s most brutal civil war.

So begins this brilliant, blackly absurdist road-trip novel, a restaging of “As I Lay Dying” in the thick of the world’s most brutal civil war.

(…)

Mr. Khalifa skillfully condenses the trip’s detours and delays into a breakneck narrative that seems unstoppably tilted toward tragedy. (The fast-paced translation from the Arabic is by Leri Price.) The despairing humor acts as a tonic to the nihilism: “Life and death are only a matter of official documents,” says a checkpoint officer waiting to be faxed certification of the father’s pungently evident condition. Bolbol is the novel’s emotional core, an unassuming quietist who, unlike his father, has abandoned his freedoms to stay on the regime’s good side, yet keeps getting dragged underneath “a tide of humanity that regards dying as the ultimate solution to the enigma of living.” The living have the wheel in this unforgettable book, but it’s the dead—and those doing everything in their power to join them—who give the directions.

The living have the wheel in this unforgettable book, but it’s the dead—and those doing everything in their power to join them—who give the directions.

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