Death is Hard Work is the title of a book by the Syrian author, Khaled Khalifa. (Faber & Faber, 2019, translated from the Arabic by Leri Price).
Khalifa’s novel follows three siblings, two brothers and a sister who attempt to bury their father after his recent death in a hospital in Damascus. The father’s wish is to be buried in his family’s plot in a small village near Aleppo. In normal circumstances this would be a two-hour drive but this is Syria, a war-zone, overrun with soldiers from the Assad regime and militias. Trying to bury their father is an almost impossible mission.
The half a million deaths (numbers may be higher) in Syria over the past nine and a half years have not been caused by a virus but by bombing and shelling and the destruction of infrastructure. However, though the novel explores the madness of the war, it is also eerily prescient in many ways. Syria is not only a place of death, it is also a place of endless check-points. People cannot travel freely and are buried alone. Families are unable to be with the dying. A silent funeral stripped of all its awe…Rites and ritual meant nothing now. For the first time, everyone was truly equal in death.
Khalifa writes of a world upended, where the normal rules no longer apply. Of course coronavirus is not a war, however much our politicians like to use such phrases, but it has upended our normal day-to-day lives. We may not fear bombs, but we fear the virus. We fear becoming ill or even dying, or that our loved ones may fall ill and die. We have not, as a society (here in Europe) faced death like this since the Second World War and we have lived, on the whole, with an expectation that our lives and the lives of our children will improve. Despite warnings, we did not expect to face a virus of this magnitude.
The novel sounds depressing but it’s not - it’s a very funny novel, surreal too, and moving. Khalifa also explores the nature of doubt. In a situation as grim as this – doubt is positive. Binary positions are not helpful. I think we can learn from this right now.
When we have little control over our circumstances, doubt and surreal humour can be subversive; they help us cope. And we need stories. Especially now. In time stories will be told of this time, indeed are already being told. But we don’t have to read directly about the virus. We can learn to cope - and understand - by living through others' experience too.
If you do decide you'd like to read books about loneliness and social distancing (and who’d blame you if you’d rather read escapism!) my suggestions are:
Moominland in November, by Tove Jansson
The dystopian, The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz
The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, a strange and eerie tale of human isolation.
Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two novels, A Bird in the House and Here Casts No Shadow, and two collections of flash fiction, Not Here, Not US – Stories of Syria and Listen with Mother – a memoir of growing up in the Midlands. Her novella-in-flash, Long Bend Shallows, was recently shortlisted for the Bath novella award. Her flash fiction has been published in a number of online journals and anthologies.