The Corpse Washer, A Story of Death and Life

Sinan Antoon deftly tells of the gruesome conflicts and unfulfilled dreams of many Iraqis over the last few decades in his novel The Corpse Washer, which is now available to English readers for the first time. The story is told by narrator Jawad whose own personal experiences are shared by many other Iraqis who saw their hopes for the future halted by numerous wars and conflicts. Jawad was born into a traditional Shiite family and is the son of a long line of corpse washers and shrouders. When Jawad began helping his father at the mghaysil, or washhouse, he was very interested in the ritual of corpse washing and while he took his duties seriously, he soon realizes that this place of death is not how he wants to spend his life. He finds solace from the psychologically distressing days and the nightmares that follow in the pages of his sketchbook, drawing whatever he sees. This fondness for drawing and one inspirational art teacher propel Jawad to decide to study art at university despite his father’s wishes.

Click for larger image. After the events of war cause Jawad’s dreams of becoming a great artist to come to a standstill, the death of his brother and father, debts incurred from family medical issues, and the great difficulty of finding a job in a city wrought with unemployment, Jawad makes the tough decision to return to the mghaysil. Feeling cornered, Jawad returns to the arduous task of preparing the dead for the grave, promising himself that it will only be for a short while. After several years, Jawad is still at the mghaysil depressed and increasingly isolating himself from others, but throughout his experiences as a corpse washer, and through anecdotes from his time spent away from the profession, the gruesome daily lives of Iraqis are exposed. Antoon is able to provide a great portrait of Baghdad through the events of an everyday life. He tells the story of a man who is increasingly becoming more and more a stranger to his own city and even his own country. He expertly weaves the themes of life and death to exist as one through a character who symbolizes and tells of the strife of a nation and whose voice should be heard by many.

The Corpse Washer was translated from Arabic to English by the author and is part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. Sinan Antoon describes the experience of translating his own novel:

A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” according to Paul Valéry. This is often true. Can one say the same about a novel?

Novels do end, of course, with the last word on the last page. But even before becoming a writer I always wondered as a young reader about the lives and trajectories of events after the act of reading comes to an end. As a novelist I still wonder what became of my characters. Alas, there is no way to communicate with them. I know more about the characters and the events that I have written on paper, but I don’t know everything.

Novels inhabit a liminal space between the real and the imaginary. The experience of translating my own novel has allowed me to return to that space and to inhabit it once again, temporarily. This time, however, the characters spoke English. Their lives (and deaths) did not change at all, but they said a few words here and there differently and left a few others unsaid.

All this is to say that when the translator inhabits the body and being of the author, s/he is given unique privileges that are otherwise denied or frowned upon.

The Corpse WasherThe Margellos World Republic of Letters identifies works of cultural and artistic significance previously overlooked by translators and publishers, canonical works of literature and philosophy needing new translations, as well as important contemporary authors whose work has not yet been translated into English. The series is designed to bring to the English-speaking world leading poets, novelists, essayists, philosophers, and playwrights from Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, to stimulate international discourse and creative exchange.

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