The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon
Translated from the Arabic by the author
I’ve been reading this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist (along with a group of book bloggers chaired by Stu) and Tony has kindly invited me to share my thoughts on one of the longlisted titles.
The Corpse Washer is narrated by Jawad, the youngest son from a Shi'ite family living in Baghdad. Jawad’s father (like his father before him) washes and shrouds corpses prior to burial and he expects his youngest son to learn this time-honoured ritual in order to continue the family’s calling. At an early stage in the novel, we follow the young Jawad as his father takes him to the mghaysil (washhouse) for the first time to learn the basics of the trade. Jawad’s first task is to observe his father and Hammoudy (his father’s assistant) as they attend to the ritual of cleansing and shrouding bodies. In an extended section covering several pages, Antoon describes Jawad’s introduction to the mghaysil with grace and humanity:
It was a bit smaller than I had imagined it. The scents of lotus and camphor wafted through the air, and I felt the humidity seeping into my skin. He closed the door behind us and went inside ahead of me. The first object that struck my eyes after we crossed the hallway and entered the main room was the marble bench on which the dead were washed. Its northern part, where their heads would rest, was slightly elevated so that the water could flow down. The mghaysil was more than six decades old, and many generations of our family had worked in it, including my grandfather, who had died before I was born. (pgs. 14-15)
As the young Jawad grows up, he becomes reluctant to continue the family’s vocation. He has a talent for art, aspires to be an artist and chooses instead to study at Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts. But events in Baghdad intervene and impinge on his dreams; years of economic sanctions under Saddam Hussein’s regime, followed by the American invasion and occupation of Iraq take their toll:
After weeks of bombing we woke up one morning to find the sky pitch black. The smoke from the torched oil wells in Kuwait had obliterated the sky. Black rain fell afterward, colouring everything with soot as if forecasting what would befall us later. (pg. 61)
Jawad feels trapped in a place where ‘even the statues are too terrified to sleep at night lest they wake up as ruins’. His father dies (along with his brother who is killed in the Iran-Iraq war) and it becomes virtually impossible for him to find alternative work, or to leave Iraq for the matter. As the casualties of the Iraq War continue to mount, Jawad returns to the mghaysil to maintain the ritual of washing and shrouding. Death is a dominant presence in the narrative, and our protagonist seems unable to escape its shadow:
Death is not content with what it takes from me in my waking hours, it insists on haunting me even in my sleep. Isn’t it enough that I toil all day tending to its eternal guests, preparing them to sleep in its lap? Is death punishing me because I thought I could escape its clutches? If my father were still alive he would mock my silly thoughts. He would dismiss all this as infantile, unbecoming to a man. Didn’t he spend a lifetime doing his job day after day, never once complaining of death? But death back then was timid and more measured than today. (pg. 3)
Antoon augments this effect by showing us how a combination of mind-numbing insomnia and horrific nightmares haunt Jawad by night. These distressing dreams punctuate the narrative, and in this example he’s visited by and old man with long white hair and a long white beard - once again, death is a recurring theme:
Wake up, Jawad, and write down all the names! I think it very odd that he knows my name. I look at his eyes. They are a strange sky-blue colour, set deep into his eye sockets. His face is laced with wrinkles as if he were hundreds of years old. I ask him flatly: Who are you? What names? He smiles: You don’t recognise me? Get a pen and paper and write down all the names. Don’t forget a single name. They are the names of those whose souls I will pluck tomorrow and whose bodies I will leave for you to purify. (pg. 26)
The Corpse Washer is a powerful and very moving book. The narrative’s timeline moves backwards and forwards as Antoon shows us snapshots of key moments in Jawad’s life, almost like a series of vignettes. It’s a story of a young man’s choices in life, his dreams and ambitions and his family’s expectations. And it gives us an insight into the pain and sorrow of living with the inevitable death and destruction that come with war.
The Corpse Washer certainly deserves its place in the IFFP longlist; I particularly liked Antoon’s portrayal of Jawad’s relationship with his father and the scenes set in the mghaysil (which has the calm atmosphere of a haven within the tumultuous city). As with many of the books I’ve read this year, it took me to a different place, another world.
The Corpse Washer is published in the UK by Yale University Press.