Many Western readers will find Khaled Khalifa’s new novel unbearably grim. A story about three Syrian siblings’ quixotic quest to bury their dead father—a story whose central narrative marker of chronological progression is a man’s decomposing corpse—is not light reading. Nor does Khalifa feel obliged to provide his readers with much in the way of hope or even momentary relief. Death Is Hard Work moves in a way similar to the war it chronicles—mercilessly over the bones of its victims.
Like Khalifa’s previous novel, the masterpiece No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, Death Is Hard Work traces the familial connections of a Syrian clan caught up in the country’s brutal tide of repression and fear. The novel charts the efforts of Bolbol, Hussein and Fatima to transport their father’s body back to his home village, so as to bury him in accordance with his final wishes. No sooner do the siblings pile into a rickety van than they find themselves mired in a never-ending series of military checkpoints—some manned by regime soldiers, others by members of the resistance, still others by foreign extremists looking to cash in on the chaos of Syria’s civil war.
Frequently and without warning, the novel strays from the present-day narrative into the histories, dreams and frustrations of its central characters. 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.
Readers looking for optimism or resolution need look elsewhere. Readers who want an unflinching account of one of recent history’s bloodiest civil wars will find in Khalifa’s latest work a story superficially colored by the many manifestations of death, but chiefly concerned with what a miraculous, Herculean thing it is to simply live.
This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.