Death Is Hard Work

Death Is Hard Work

by Khaled Khalifa, Leri Price

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A dogged, absurd quest through the nightmare of the Syrian civil war

Khaled Khalifa’s Death Is Hard Work is the new novel from the greatest chronicler of Syria’s ongoing and catastrophic civil war: a tale of three ordinary people facing down the stuff of nightmares armed with little more than simple determination.

Abdel Latif, an old man from the Aleppo region, dies peacefully in a hospital bed in Damascus. His final wish, conveyed to his youngest son, Bolbol, is to be buried in the family plot in their ancestral village of Anabiya. Though Abdel was hardly an ideal father, and though Bolbol is estranged from his siblings, this conscientious son persuades his older brother Hussein and his sister Fatima to accompany him and the body to Anabiya, which is—after all—only a two-hour drive from Damascus.

There’s only one problem: Their country is a war zone.

With the landscape of their childhood now a labyrinth of competing armies whose actions are at once arbitrary and lethal, the siblings’ decision to set aside their differences and honor their father’s request quickly balloons from a minor commitment into an epic and life-threatening quest. Syria, however, is no longer a place for heroes, and the decisions the family must make along the way—as they find themselves captured and recaptured, interrogated, imprisoned, and bombed—will prove to have enormous consequences for all of them.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

An elderly man who passed away peacefully left his younger son with one request: to bury him in the family plot in their ancestral village. Though the man was hardly an ideal father, the son dutifully rounds up his tetchy brother and sister and persuades them to join in the two-hour drive to the village. The only complication: this is Syria, and as they leave Damascus for the countryside, the siblings are imprisoned, interrogated, and bombarded by the various competing factions that stand between them and the cemetery. Winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal and finalist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Khalifa himself refuses to leave Damascus and remains a key chronicler of the city's fate.

The New York Times Book Review - Elliot Ackerman

"I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind," Dr. Peabody says in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. "The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town." Had the acclaimed Syrian novelist Khaled Khalifa chosen an epigraph for his masterly new book, Death Is Hard Work, Faulkner's words might have proved fitting, for Khalifa's novel wrestles with similar themes of societal demise and rejuvenation on a tableau every bit as haunted by violence as the swamps, plantations and red-clay roads of Faulkner's fictionalized Yoknapatawpha County of the Reconstruction-era South…Many fine American writers have claimed the mantle of Faulkner's successor through their chronicling of life in the South. But Faulkner wasn't writing only about the South. He was writing about civil war, too. With Death Is Hard Work, Khaled Khalifa has, intentionally or not, also laid claim to that title.

Publishers Weekly

Khalifa’s novel compellingly tackles the strain of responsibility felt by a man in war-torn Syria. After his father, Abdel Latif, dies in hospital, 40-something Bolbol gathers his estranged siblings Hussein and Fatima and, with the corpse in the back of Hussein’s minibus, sets off from Damascus to honor Abdel’s deathbed wish to be buried alongside his sister in the village of Anabiya. Though the distance is short, the quartet’s quest is frequently interrupted by violence and corrupt military checkpoints, forcing the journey to stretch over days, during which time Abdel’s body bloats beneath its burial shroud. Khalifa (No Knives in the Kitchens of This City) punctuates repetitious roadblocks with segues detailing the histories of all four characters. For example, after taking refuge at the home of a former girlfriend, Bolbol reminisces about his father’s own pursuits of an old flame; and later, Hussein’s teenage abandonment of his parents and siblings crops up while their adult counterparts contemplate the purpose of fulfilling Abdel’s request. The narrative choice to summarize conversation indirectly, rather than placing the dialogue directly on the page, might distract some readers. Nonetheless, the novel is at times harrowing—the family flees wild dogs and faces masked guards—and serves as a reminder of the devastation of war and the power of integrity. (Feb.)

From the Publisher

"[A] brilliant, blackly absurdist road-trip novel, a restaging of As I Lay Dying in the thick of the world’s most brutal civil war." —Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal

"Astonishing . . . The journey recalls Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the long last ride of Addie Bundren; like Faulkner too, Khalifa employs a shifting array of voices and reflections, moving from perspective to perspective, present to past and back again. The effect is a persistent deepening, as stories are introduced and then revisited, details added through the play of memory . . . The power of the novel . . . is that it unfolds within a human context, which pushes against and resists the prevailing social one." David Ulin, Los Angeles Times

"Refusing to look away from its characters' challenges, the novel is clear-eyed in its presentation of living in a war zone. Winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, Syrian author Khalifa reaches readers with a style that is straightforward, true, and profound." —Emily Dziuban, Booklist (starred review)

"Khalifa’s novel compellingly tackles the strain of responsibility felt by a man in war-torn Syria . . . serves as a reminder of the devastation of war and the power of integrity." —Publishers Weekly

"Insistent, memorable portrait of the small indignities and large horrors of the civil war in Syria . . . Suggestive at times of a modern Decameron and a skillfully constructed epic that packs a tremendous amount of hard-won knowledge into its pages." —Kirkus (starred review)

"Wryly compelling...Death Is Hard Work may be Khalifa's finest achievement yet, movingly conveying the fear, paranoia and hardships of life in an embattled police state." —The Financial Times

"If literature is a momentary stay against confusion, then Khalifa’s novels are ardent stays against destruction and decay—and Death Is Hard Work continues this tradition." —Nick Ripatrazone, The Millions

"Death is Hard Work moves in a way similar to the war it chronicles—mercilessly over the bones of its victims . . . The result is something at the intersection of Faulkner and Kafka, a modern-day As I Lay Dying passed through the lens of maddening bureaucracy, hypocrisy and slaughter." —Omar El Akkad, BookPage

Kirkus Reviews

★ 2018-11-12

Insistent, memorable portrait of the small indignities and large horrors of the civil war in Syria.

A native of the Aleppo district, Khalifa—well-known in the Arabic-reading world but new to most American readers and a winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature—here writes of a family both joined and torn apart by death. The paterfamilias knows that his passing is imminent: The first sentence reads, "Two hours before he died, Abdel Latif al-Salim looked his son Bolbol straight in the eye with as much of his remaining strength as he could muster to extract a solemn vow and repeated his request to be buried in the cemetery of Anabiya." In a time of peace, that wouldn't be hard, for Anabiya is a couple of hours away from Damascus, where the family is living. But this is a time of war, and now Bolbol must enlist the aid of his brother, Hussein, and sister, Fatima, to take their father's body across barriers and front lines. As they travel, memories and dialogue combine to begin to suggest how the siblings drifted apart and how Syria's dissolution took some of their dreams with them, some a little unseemly: Hussein, for instance, harbored hopes of becoming a crime lord instead of driving hookers around and running errands for a drug dealer as a toady on the lowest rung of the local mob. They learn about their father, too, as they travel across the ravaged landscape, and what they learn isn't the stuff of bonding: "all three siblings were like strangers to this corpse that…still retained the advantage of being able to lie there without caring." Ah, but divisions and disappointments reign even in death, and at the close of the story, even Anabiya is short of room to welcome a native son into its earth, to say nothing of people to mark his passing.

Suggestive at times of a modern Decameron and a skillfully constructed epic that packs a tremendous amount of hard-won knowledge into its pages.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374717643
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/12/2019
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 305,609
File size: 4 MB

Customer Reviews