I just finished Sinan Antoon’s 2010 The Corpse Washer for the book club at my local library and, since I mostly use Goodreads as a memory aid for remembering what works I’ve ingested, I took a moment to browse through what other readers said about it. Most of the comments were in Arabic script which, as a reader of the 2014 Yale-published English translation, meant nothing to me. The one comment I did find in English was, despite being a bit abrasive, not entirely ridiculous. The centerpiece of this 3 paragraph grumble reads: “The biggest problem with the book isn’t that the story is unconvincing or unbelievable, but it lacks emotional involvement on a literary level. At times it reads like a boringly written memoir, and sometimes like a journalist’s reportage.” These were similar to my initial thoughts on the book. But as a pedant, and inspired by the recent ping-ponging between Youtubers Jack Saint/Eric Taxxon, and MauLer/Silverwolf, I’ve decided to be pedantic about this lack of “emotional investment on a literary level.” So, where is it?
A Process of Erasure
Upfront, I think the Goodreads commenter is correct in how memoirish/journalistic the novel is overall. It’s too stylistic to be Hemingway, too dysprodic to be Ferrante, too serious to be Barthelme, and so on. The closest analog might be a book I read last year – Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint’s The End of Peril, The End of Enmity, The End of Strife, A Haven – but even still, Antoon’s style resist the circuitous route that Myint’s takes. It’s presented as a linear narrative about an Iraqi boy, Jawad, who wants to become an artist. His older brother Ammoury is more understanding and defends him against his father, a shiite mghassilchi (the corpse washer of the title, or “body-washer” as it’s translated within the novel) who expects Jawad to take his place as he did his father’s. Ammoury can defend Jawad precisely because he’s the favorite. Then he dies in the Gulf War during his compulsory service. Contributing to the image of an indifferent Jawad, his reaction consists only of “a silent tear fell on my cheek” and a recitation of Ammoury’s good deeds toward himself.
Of all the deaths of the novel, in fact, none seem to fill Jawad with charge or vigor. His fiance by cancer, his father by heart attack, his military friend by bombing, his brother by gunfire. All of them are described as opposed to expressed, lack “emotional involvement on a literary level,” almost a theatrics of loss much as how Jawad’s mother beats her head and wails aloud to God. Steam from a kettle, nothing more.
There are two way in which this conception of emotional investment misses the point of The Corpse Washer. Jawad’s primary encounter with death, the one that haunts him, is in the mghaysil. And this is important because it’s a stranger and not a loved one that introduces him to death’s terror; it’s not dying or death as such, but his proximity to death. It’s not an accident that the integral ideas obsessed over in the novel by Jawad are:
- Food, a life-giving object, being “paid for by death” from the mghaysil. In this is the invocation of a Father supposedly providing life through death as one might see in many religions (though Islam primarily for The Corpse Washer), or its parallel in the political sphere of the paternalistic and vengeful America invading Iraq and enforcing a sectarian democracy that ultimately fails.
- Trees being fed by death – the pomegranate tree outside the mghaysil from which Jawad ate from being fed by the water used on the corpses because “water used for washing the dead was never to mix with sewage”; or the palm trees that act as analogs to Iraqis and the litany of abuses they faced under American power about which Jawad’s uncle Sabri writes about.
- Representation and the representational possibility of art. This is by far the most explicit and Ouroboros obsession since Jawad’s primary motivation throughout the novel is to become an artist in order to escape inheriting his father’s duties as a mghassilchi. It also involves the representation of The People of Iraq in the political sphere, of course, as well as Jawad’s personal representation of himself as a person.
In all this, as Jawad fails in his escape by the novel’s end, the deadness of his tone is in fact the “emotional investment” being looked for. In likely the most quoted lines from the book, “if death is a postman, then I receive his letters everyday.” He has a reached a dead end by the time of his writing, of his representing himself. Much like how corresponding with his uncle takes on the tone of desperation to flee Iraq for a new life, his correspondence with us takes on the tone of a separate plea to escape from his life. But in order to escape his life through writing, he must have failed to escape it in the first place, and so his writing takes on the distance of the failed. The deadness of the voice is precisely the point. The only true escape at this juncture is erasure, a doubly impossible process: the book is written, the son inherits the father’s duties.
Our Goodreads reviewer also misses out on the structure of the novel. Despite calling the novel “linear” in the prior section, it would be more exact to call it orthogonal to itself. If I were to explain the plot in depth, it would be easy to give a step-by-step breakdown, and you could go in knowing as much as the person beside you who skimmed the Sparknotes last night because they were frenzied about possibly being called on in class. Yet this story is disrupted by dreams. As they do in life itself, dreams irupt into the linearity. At times they seep in, half-convincing in their reality; at other times they grind like a whetstone, sharpening reality to a fine point. In one, radicals storm into the mghaysil and assault Jawad because he’s a non-practicing Shiite; in another, a Giacometti statue dissolves on the mghaysil’s washing bench while Jawad hurriedly tries to piece it together.
Having recently re-read Mrs. Dalloway, my thoughts go to when Clarissa hears about Septimus’ suicide at her party: “Oh! Thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.”
Every insomnia-inducing dream is one of death irrupting into life. On a technical level they function as periods between sentences (another kind of end, death) giving a slight pause to the narrative in order to allow the stage to be reset for a new scene. If dreams were a variable, they would be undeducible. Their gap ranges anywhere from hours to years. However, the dreams bare an aleatory mark. Not in that Antoon threw darts for their chapter locations – as useful a psychological explanation as any other for their placement – but that they introduce freeplay into a life driven by external forces.
The three images that Jawad obsesses over all share an element of necessity. One needs food to eat, trees to breath, and representation to think. One is defined by their cuisine, by their setting, and by how they represent the world and are represented. It’s meaningful the Goodreader should describe the writing as journalistic or memoir-ish. These are arguably the two literary forms most directly tied to the necessities of verisimilitude and adhering to the expected, the linear, an “emotional investment.” They are stories about life as it is and must have been lived. What The Corpse Washer aims for is a tangential verisimilitude. The Canal Hotel Bombing and Paul Bremer’s disgraced IGC are “emotional” by dint “historical” truth – like a journalist would report or memoirist would recount. Dreams are meant to display the exact manner in which this fixation on “emotional investment” as vim and vigor is deadening. Jawad’s very dream to become an artist is one of vim and vigor – it guides him towards his failed engagement to Reem and his failed escape to Jordan. And this is not the pessimist’s generous dispensation of “I give ups,” but rather, the reintegration of the pressure of the external upon an individual. Gramsci: “Pessimism of the Intellect. Optimism of the Will.” If sleep is the cousin of death, then what are dreams? Cousins, once removed from death.
To this end Jawad makes clear at the novel’s end that life and death are “conjoined, sculpting each other.” Dreams, QED, are that which dismantles and amends this conjunction just as “after” does to “but.” What “emotional investment” can one ask of Job?
The Burden of the Gods and Their Toil
The reviewer speaks of “tragicomic potential” in regards to the missing “emotional investment.” More than a dullard’s hot take, the perception of this potential in The Corpse Washer is an interesting misreading. It is the possibility of potential that is, in fact, in question in the novel. It’s not for no reason that Jawad says of the pomegranate tree “its fate is to be a tree and to remain here,” before elaborating, “I keep saying that I don’t believe in fate. So why am I saying this? I should say its history, not its fate. History is what people call fate. And history is random and violent.” History as a narrative of the progression of events, is both fate and randomness. The two collapse into one another just as life and death do, conjoined, with the result that what is possible is erased. Jawad remains in the mghaysil. His father “heavily armed with faith, made [his] heart a castle”; his own heart “an abandoned house whose windows are shattered and doors are unhinged.” The perfect mirror, too, to the physical world pre- and post-Iraq War.
Just as there is little comedy in certain jokes, intended or otherwise, in Jawad’s world there is no comedy. No comedy because there is no hope. Death, it seems, is most approximate hope. But after death?
Perhaps that is The Corpse Washer’s one joke.
Jawad recounts a Mesopotamian creation myth wherein the gods needed slaves because they were tired of manual labor. The gods plead first to water and wisdom god An-ki, then to his mother Nammu when An-ki didn’t hear them. Once the message is sent An-ki agrees to make humanity using mud from the deep waters and the blood of a sacrificed god. “He shall be both god and human, eternally united in clay.” We might celebrate our duality of godhood and humanity in a way familiar formula to several religions. But consider that there is no clear difference between god and human. Both labor on the earth, both can die anonymously – the sacrificed god is never named. All that differs is the origin and intention of mankind’s existence: gods are free, men their slaves. Both think themselves free. So, Goodreader, there’s your emotional investment in a joke. There’s plenty of comedy, as Kafka would say, an infinite amount of comedy – but not for us.