Sinan Antoon’s self-translated (from Arabic) novel, “The Corpse Washer,” is a book that comes bearing bittersweet gifts. The story can only be described as a tragedy of accumulated loss, but the language Antoon employs — simple, direct, fiercely poetic — is an affirmation of life and culture. The narrator, Jawad, is next in line in an Iraqi family of corpse washers — people who clean the bodies of the dead according to religious custom and ritual. As a young man, he rejects this profession in favor of art, entering the Baghdad Academy to try to sculpt stone into life — the opposite of his father’s profession.
But death is nothing if not patient.
In the idiom of the poetry Jahad uses to express his deepest feelings, his heart is like a bird struggling in a net whose invisible ropes are made of war, religion and custom. His artistic aspirations come to a halt when the academy closes due to the war. The corpse-washing hut — the mghaysil — becomes his prison after his father’s death, temporary employment becoming permanent. His city, the women he loves, his brother — death, in one form or another, eventually comes for all of them. The embargo has left Iraq impoverished and dusty, with no place for a young artist, whose salary as an art teacher is “barely enough to cover one week’s transportation.” He spends the 1990s painting houses, rather than canvasses. “I found myself for years on end reduced to using no more than three colors … on cold and monotonous surfaces.” The mghaysil waits patiently for Jahad’s return.
“We thought that the value of life had reached rock bottom under the dictatorship … but the opposite happened. Corpses piled up like goals scored by death of behalf of rabid teams in a never-ending game.”
Antoon makes this tale compelling, rather than a drone of despair, with the language he uses to tell it. Jawad the artist is a deft witness, describing Baghdad with simple, vivid details: At one outdoor magazine shop, two new postwar phenomena vie for attention: Sirens with tempting eyes stare from the glossy covers on one side, while angry, charismatic looking men glare at them from the other. Absent the unified horror of Saddam, once banned sectarianism has come out in full force — the men on the covers are its new leaders.
Finally, what the reader is left with is not death and oppression, but how our way of describing even these horrors is an act of resistance. By giving voice to sorrow in a traditionally “Persian” style, both Jahad and his creator, Antoon, rise above it; there is a pomegranate tree outside Jahad’s mghaysil, nourished by the water sloshed on it after washing the dead: corpse water.
“I am like the tree, but all my branches have been cut, broken, and buried … my heart [is] beating with death. But no one knows. No one. The pomegranate alone knows.”
The rhythms of these lines are themselves a heartbeat.
Emily Carter is the author of “Glory Goes and Gets Some.”