*Khaled Khalifa. Death is Hard Work. A Novel.
Translated by Leri Price.
Read by Neil Shah.
5 CDs. 6 hrs.
HighBridge. 2019 978-1-6844-1863-3.
How easy is it to put aside mundane family squabbles when your country is embroiled in a perpetual war? Bolbol, the protagonist of Death is Hard Work, assumes that the closeness he once felt for his brother, Hussein, and sister, Fatima, might re-emerge with the death of their father, the courageous activist Abdel Latif. But as anyone who has ever dealt with family drama knows, the resentments and misunderstandings of decades will not fade overnight, even when all are in mourning. To make matters worse, Abdel Latif has not only asked his children to mourn him, he has also requested that his body be brought to his hometown, a two-hour drive from Aleppo, where they all now live. In Syria, this is not a matter of hopping in the car in the morning and being in the village in time for lunch. Forget about finding anyone to help prepare the corpse for burial, because there are so many dead bodies that all of the morgues are overwhelmed, and an old man's undramatic death is uninteresting in comparison to the sacrifice of martyrs to the revolution. When Hussein, who works as a driver, reluctantly agrees to drive Bolbol, Fatima, and their father's body to the village, the siblings must contend with endless checkpoints, which not only requires waiting in line for hours, but also involves delicate maneuvering in order to get through and stay out of prison. Should you emphasize your ties to the revolution or hide them? Can you find the right relative or bigwig to vouch for you, when you decide incorrectly? Do you have enough money for bribes, and can you deliver them without causing offense? How should you answer the perplexed soldiers' questions about the reasons why you are transporting a corpse? And what IS a corpse, exactly? Luggage? A person who requires identity papers? Oh yes, and there are bombs exploding all around you, and the body is smelling worse as the two-hour tour becomes many days. But despite all of this, the most fraught moments in Death is Hard Work are the interpersonal ones between these siblings, who consider how the trajectory of their lives has disappointed them, whether it be in spouse, career, or wealth, and who might be to blame. The fact that Bolbol, Hussein and Fatima have the mental space to carry these seemingly petty burdens around while the world is literally exploding around them is the brilliance (and dark humor) of Death is Hard Work. And while the story's goal is to get Abdel to his final resting place, the listener will find herself hooked to the narrative of whether these characters will set aside their petty grievances once and for all.
Narrator Neil Shah has a flexible voice that easily modulates between the three siblings, doing justice to the masculine voices without turning Fatima into a caricature. Shah can express the more dramatic moments, such as when Bolbol remembers a family friend who set herself on fire in protest, as well as the more comedic moments, like when Hussein struggles to find the right inane aphorism for every situation, with equal skill.
Khaled Khalifa was born in 1964 in a village close to Aleppo, Syria. He has written numerous screenplays and is the author of several novels, including In Praise of Hatred, which was short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, which won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2013. He lives in Damascus, a city he has refused to abandon despite the danger posed by the ongoing Syrian civil war. Leri Price is the translator of Khaled Khalifa's In Praise of Hatred and No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, as well as literature from Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.
Reviewed by Joanna Theiss