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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 peaceful 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.


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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 peaceful 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.

30 review for Death Is Hard Work

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jim Fonseca

    This story is from the front-lines of the on-going terror and civil war in Syria. It’s almost a manual of what it is like to live in a dystopian society that is disintegrating while we watch. The title tells us what we might expect from the continuing headlines we’ve seen for five years: such terror and chaos reigns in the country that many of those who cannot flee the country have given up hope of living. When a mother’s second son dies in the rebellion, her first reaction is “I’m not surprised This story is from the front-lines of the on-going terror and civil war in Syria. It’s almost a manual of what it is like to live in a dystopian society that is disintegrating while we watch. The title tells us what we might expect from the continuing headlines we’ve seen for five years: such terror and chaos reigns in the country that many of those who cannot flee the country have given up hope of living. When a mother’s second son dies in the rebellion, her first reaction is “I’m not surprised.” The main character is a The young man whose father has just died. He has promised his father that he would bury him next to his sister back in his father’s hometown, a few hundred miles away. Although the son has had only cursory interaction with his older brother and sister over the last ten years, he convinces them to accompany him to take the body in a Volkswagen bus on what would be in normal times, a one-day-or-so trip to the burial site. He’s not a guy with a lot of self-esteem: “I’m just another worn out pair of shoes walking the street.” The author uses the chaotic trip to illustrate conditions in Syria and to tell us the stories of the man, his father and his siblings. I’ll leave out those details as spoilers. Instead I’ll focus on what is revealed about the chaotic conditions people in that country are surviving on a daily basis. The trip turns into a hellish journey, an insane, Kafkaesque nightmare. And we are reminded of Kafka not only by the byzantine bureaucracy the three-some encounters at military checkpoints, but also by the body metamorphosing into worms. You’ll need a strong stomach to handle all the description of the bodily decay, not to mention the violence in this book. We see through the eyes of the author and the main character how the brutality of the regime created its own revolution. Many rebels deserted the army with their weapons when they were disgusted by orders to shoot to kill demonstrators with no restrictions: women, children and elderly were fair game. They opened fire on funeral processions. There is no accountability for soldiers of the regime: they can shoot or torture anyone for any reason – no questions asked. So giving a soldier at a checkpoint a flippant answer can get you killed. Hospitals are prohibited from taking in rebel wounded. Doctors who privately treat such wounded are targeted for murder by the regime. One woman whose doctor son was killed that way asked his medical colleagues to piece together his body after it was released by the police. Nor can rebels be buried in traditional graveyards, so private ones spring up. As the family travels back to the father’s hometown they cross numerous military checkpoints; first those of the regime; then, as they pass into rebel territory, those of the rebel resistance. There is the absurdity of the military wanting the body placed under arrest because he was a man wanted for joining the rebels. It takes hours and sometimes days to get through a checkpoint. One checkpoint is manned entirely by Chechen soldiers who hardly speak Arabic. One rebel-held checkpoint requires men to pass a test of religious knowledge to continue through. There is constant gunfire, explosions, the roar of streaking jets, helicopters, troop and tank movements in the main character’s neighborhood as well as on the road. His father chose to live in a shell of his former home with walls missing. The streets are filled with amputees. There are snipers along the highways, and bodies can be seen along roads left for the wild dogs that feed off them. One night of the trip the family tries to sleep in the van in a field but dogs throw themselves at the van trying to get at the decaying body. Not a pleasant book to read but neither are the daily headlines. It reminds me of other books I’ve read that describe life in chaotic worn-torn countries. So many! Two recent ones are Hotel Silence by, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (also set in the Mideast) and Made in Yugoslavia by Vladimir Jokanovic. The author (b. 1964) is a Syrian novelist, playwright, poet and screenwriter. Much of his work has been banned or suppressed in his country. Top photo from aljazeera.com Middle photo from newyorktimes.com The author from timesofisrael.com

  2. 5 out of 5

    Adina

    Longlisted for Best Translated Book Award 2020 This is the 2nd novel I listened to for the BTBA awards but I preferred the 1st one, The Wind That Lays Waste. Death is Hard Work is a retelling of As I Lay Dying by Faulkner. Abdel Latif, a man from the Aleppo region dies from old age, a rare feat in war torn Syria. He makes his children promise to bury him in his home village, Anabiya. Reluctantly, the three estranged siblings embark in a perilous drive through the Syrian tragic landscape. The road Longlisted for Best Translated Book Award 2020 This is the 2nd novel I listened to for the BTBA awards but I preferred the 1st one, The Wind That Lays Waste. Death is Hard Work is a retelling of As I Lay Dying by Faulkner. Abdel Latif, a man from the Aleppo region dies from old age, a rare feat in war torn Syria. He makes his children promise to bury him in his home village, Anabiya. Reluctantly, the three estranged siblings embark in a perilous drive through the Syrian tragic landscape. The road is sprinkled with hostile checkpoints, bombed villages, memories and people from the past and most oppressing with the silence between the three, each dealing with suppressed anger, loss, guilt and remorse. The drive takes a lot more than it was planned due to the obstacles they encounter in the path and as the body decays and festers, the drift between the relationships of the siblings deepens and conflict will become imminent. There are two time lines, the present trip that the siblings and the dead man take which swarms with hurt, war, death, hunger and ridiculous rules and the mostly sad memories of each character. None of the them seem to have had a fulfilling life; each had their regrets and losses. The novel was well written but I had a problem. I sometimes felt disconnected from the novel mainly due to the constant drifting in the past and I felt that the passing interrupted the flow. At one point I was gutted by the horrors of war and of a dictatorial regime only to not care at all what happened to Fatima or other character. I would have probably benefited from reading Faulkner novel, there might have been some references hidden inside to that classic but I missed them completely.

  3. 4 out of 5

    may ❀

    book #1 for #ReadTheMiddleEast readathon (yes, i'm taking part of two readathons at the same time, someone help me) ✓ i'm really disappointed at how this turned out for me. this is a harrowing tale of three siblings, in present day syria, traveling with their father's body back to their hometown in order to bury him there to fulfill his dying wish. and honestly, i expected so much more from this book for sure, my biggest issue was with the writing. the story continuously breaks off into tangen book #1 for #ReadTheMiddleEast readathon (yes, i'm taking part of two readathons at the same time, someone help me) ✓ i'm really disappointed at how this turned out for me. this is a harrowing tale of three siblings, in present day syria, traveling with their father's body back to their hometown in order to bury him there to fulfill his dying wish. and honestly, i expected so much more from this book for sure, my biggest issue was with the writing. the story continuously breaks off into tangents, narrating stories of the past and trying to weave those parts into the main story to make them relevant and complex, but my dude, it was so. jarring. the writing felt so clouded and confused. on one hand, you're getting these gripping, heartbreaking scenes showing the devastation and sorrow that the country and it's people currently face and then you're RIPPED away from that brutal reality and taken years back to read about an unrelated incident in a character's life and i just,,,,,,,,,,didn't vibe with it at all it made it really tiring for me to read. the actual plot of the book was crushing and i'm so sad this didn't work out for me because there were such heartbreaking scenes that made my heart ache for the characters and the people struggling through and i just wish THAT was the part of the book that got elaborated on 1.5 stars

  4. 4 out of 5

    Marisa

    This novel is a gorgeous meditation on death, grief, family, and war. It seems like it wouldn't take very long since essentially, the main plot of the book is this sibling trio taking their father's body to a town 2.5 hours away that'll take a bit longer due to the ongoing civil war in Syria. However, the reader doesn't just get to see the family dynamics between the siblings in the car; we're treated to their pasts and how they've shaped these people into who they are at the time the novel take This novel is a gorgeous meditation on death, grief, family, and war. It seems like it wouldn't take very long since essentially, the main plot of the book is this sibling trio taking their father's body to a town 2.5 hours away that'll take a bit longer due to the ongoing civil war in Syria. However, the reader doesn't just get to see the family dynamics between the siblings in the car; we're treated to their pasts and how they've shaped these people into who they are at the time the novel takes place. Each and every character is richly fleshed out from beginning to end, and they come across as actual people right in front of you rather than characters on a page in a book. The ending is a little odd, but I don't mean that in a bad way! There just isn't any real resolution to Bolbol's story, but I think that's why I love it so much. In real life, we don't always get closure or neat, even if ambiguous, endings to certain periods in our lives, and Bolbol is left at the end of the novel in such a way. How the ending is handled is also another sign of Khaled Khalifa's skill as a writer because it's incredibly difficult for a writer to pull off an ambiguous ending that isn't really an ending at all, but Khalifa does it so authentically that that's exactly how it feels: authentic. Lastly, the translation for the novel by Leri Price was superb. Sometimes I'm hesitant to read novels that have been translated from another language because so much of the original novel's meaning and language can get lost in the switch to English, but it was extremely well done. If anything, I only wish that I were fluent in Arabic so that I could fully appreciate the novel in its original language since I'm sure English doesn't quite do it the amount of justice that would receive if I had read it in Arabic. I have a feeling this will be a book I come back to again and again. I only wish I had the time and the words to write out just how truly powerful this book was for me. Highly and thoroughly recommend.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Pablo Alejandro

    One of the best novels I have read this year. The narrative shifting from present to presenting the background of all characters, its lack of sentimentalism, a very hard thing to achieve given the topic, the description of Syrian situation with an astonishing neutral/realistic though not unconcerned tone. I only disliked the fact that the female character is not really explained throughout the book and you don't really get to know her, or only as kind of mediator between both brothers.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jerrie (redwritinghood)

    I wanted to read this because it is set in present day Syria. It relates to three siblings trying to get their father’s body back to his hometown for burial. Unfortunately, the story is a little too meandering and unfocused for my tastes.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    This novel, set in present day Syria, is my translated book for the month. It turned out to be another example of Death Bed Lit. In fact, it could be the Syrian version of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Abdel Latif, an elderly man from a village near Aleppo, lays dying in a Damascus hospital with his son Bolbol standing by. The old man extracts from Bolbol a promise to make sure he is buried in the family plot back in their village, Anabiya. Anabiya is just a few hours drive from Damascus. How har This novel, set in present day Syria, is my translated book for the month. It turned out to be another example of Death Bed Lit. In fact, it could be the Syrian version of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Abdel Latif, an elderly man from a village near Aleppo, lays dying in a Damascus hospital with his son Bolbol standing by. The old man extracts from Bolbol a promise to make sure he is buried in the family plot back in their village, Anabiya. Anabiya is just a few hours drive from Damascus. How hard could it be? Bolbol contacts his older brother Hussein and his sister Fatima, convincing them to make the journey with him. Hussein procures a small van, Fatima gathers provisions. They get the unembalmed body in the vehicle and set out. Syria at this time is a war zone and the few hours' drive takes three days. Clogged roads, competing militias, checkpoints with long lines every few miles. Due to the high death rate from continuous bombings, they had to take Abdel's body away from the hospital with only a death certificate and it begins to decay in the brutal heat. Every difference, grudge and personality defect between the siblings boils up. In a mere 180 pages, Khalifa relates the history of this family and what the war has done to them. It is not all grim because a black humor pervades the tale giving a look into the Syrian soul and temperament. I kept trying to imagine how it would be to travel through such trying conditions. Khaled Khalifa has an earlier novel set in Syria: No Knives in the Kitchens of This City. Both novels won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature. The author is Syrian born and lives in Damascus, refusing to abandon his country despite the dangers created by its Civil War. For that alone, I figured I could pay him the homage of reading this truly horrifying but finely written tale.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Paltia

    I’m not finished and that’s that. Reading this book is hard work. I’m off to better books.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Paul Fulcher

    It’s hard to admit your emptiness after half a century of delusion, to be reduced to a suppurating mass giving out foul odors. Translated by Leri Price from Khaled Khalifa's original, Death Is Hard Work tells the story of three siblings taking their father's body from Damascus to his home village of Anabiya, around 70km from Aleppo, to be buried alongside his sister in the ancestral plot. A journey that would normally be routine - except Syria is suffering under a internecine civil war, and the It’s hard to admit your emptiness after half a century of delusion, to be reduced to a suppurating mass giving out foul odors. Translated by Leri Price from Khaled Khalifa's original, Death Is Hard Work tells the story of three siblings taking their father's body from Damascus to his home village of Anabiya, around 70km from Aleppo, to be buried alongside his sister in the ancestral plot. A journey that would normally be routine - except Syria is suffering under a internecine civil war, and the trip involves passing through areas under the control of different factions, including the regime's brutal security forces and foreign Islamist fighters who have taken up the cause of the rebellion. Literary comparisons in a review are typically lazy, but it is hard not to note the overlap with both Frankenstein in Baghdad, another novel set in a country riven by violence and where, as here the sight of body parts in the streets starts to become almost routine; and the Body section of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, which involves a perilous journey to bury a corpse. Death Is Hard Work has perhaps a less darkly comic aspect than either, although it has its moments (notably when the corpse is arrested at a checkpoint: Bolbol’s father was still alive and still wanted. It didn’t matter if he had in the meantime turned into a cadaver.), but ultimately is, to me, a stronger book. The body is Abdel Latif, born in the village of Anabiya, but who 40 years ago moved to the town of S to teach, a town where the 3 siblings were both. Anabiya is in rebel-held territory, and S is close to Damascus, seen by the ruling party as a hotbed of insurrection, and under permanent siege for the last 3 years. Passionately pro-revolution, Abdel Latif, stays in S, but when his health deteriorates he is smuggled out of the town by pro-rebellion troops and handed into the care of his son Bolbol in Damascus. Bolbol had been trying to lead a quiet life, sympathising with the revolution, but ultimately content to stay out of the conflict: He’d already scoured his home of everything that might have caused him harm: purging each and every suspicious belonging and even canceling all the television channels that regime supporters considered “biased,” such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, and filling his “Favorites” list with pro-regime channels: first came Al Manar and Al Mayadeen (the satellite channels run by Hezbollah), followed by Alalam from Iran, the Syrian News Channel, and then various other innocuous choices, like National Geographic, some food channels, and so forth. He’d gone over every inch of the place dozens of times to confirm to himself that the house was “clean.” He only wished he could change his ID number and his place of birth. Abdel Latif dies and his last wish, which he commands his son to carry out, is for his body to be buried in Anabiya. His death is also unusual, for being of natural causes: In recent months, when people died, no one bothered asking after the hows and the whys. They already knew the answers all too well: bombings, torture during detention, kidnappings, a sniper’s bullet, a battle. As for dying of grief, for example, or being let down by your body, deaths like that were rare—and no one lamented a death that didn’t have any outrage attached to it. Bolbol summons his brother Hussein and sister Fatima, and the previously estranged siblings embark on the road trip together, a trip that in normal times might have taken hours but which takes them several days. The brothers were two sides of the same coin: Hussein was the face of bravery and buffoonery, and Bolbol of cowardice and capitulation. Both had lost the battle with life. And Fatima, reeling from two unsuccessful marriages and 'of middling intelligence' laments her lost opportunities in life: All that remained to her now was the hope that either her son or her daughter would somehow compensate her for her lost dreams, so she might finally take revenge on the world for the loss of the pride she’d been famed for when she was a girl, convinced that she was striding purposefully toward a life of brilliance and happiness. As the trip progresses we get the different perspectives of all three as well as Abdel Latif's own history and that of others in the family, for example his recently widowed wife, his long-term secret love, who he married in the midst of the siege: Everything she had built was destroyed—the family, the house—the only thing she could do now was wait to die, but death remained such a distant prospect, in her mind. Victory in the revolution meant nothing to her anymore, other than the chance of seeing her son’s murderers dragged through the streets. She was gripped by fantasies of revenge for losses for which there was no possible restitution. After losing their compassion, a person becomes little more than another corpse abandoned by the roadside, one that should really be buried. She knew that she was already just such a body, but she still needed to die before she could find peace under the earth. And for her, dying was the hardest work of all. If Bolbol represents passive acquiescence to the regime, his father represents a different, perhaps over-idealistic, generation, their main focus not Syria itself, but rather the Palestinian cause. As Bolbol ponders: It wasn’t the first time he had pictured himself standing in front of his father, speechifying to him, telling him to his face that he was a weak, emasculated man with barely a quarter of a dream to brag of, which wasn’t nearly enough to achieve anything effective. His tirade would conclude: You’re like me, but you wrap your delusions in big words about the liberation of Palestine, which your generation left to rot. Or maybe something about the respectable family Abdel Latif had always wanted, filled with successful, educated, socialist children working in respectable professions: Like all poor people you want your children to become doctors or engineers, but your uniqueness is a fantasy and the cost of it has buried us. Another strong novel from the excellent shortlist of the National Book Award for Translated Literature. The author explains his approach here: https://electricliterature.com/why-kh... , including this comment on the striking mixture of intensity and banality in the journey:In war things take on a new meaning. The meaning of everything changes: life, hope, frustration, despair. Things lose their value, humans become killers and the killed, and time becomes ongoing, tied to a mysterious chord called the hope of survival. Thus the writer’s narrative or way of seeing stories is subject to unintended intensification because of what was happening at that time. Because it might be the last time that you are able to write, you do ordinary and regular things for the last time. You drink your coffee, hold your lover, go to work, and write for the last time.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jenny (Reading Envy)

    I never would have known this were it not for the fact of the Faulkner class I'm taking, but this book takes the idea of As I Lay Dying and adapts it to 2013 Syria, as three siblings try to take their father's body to where he wanted to be buried. Shenanigans ensue and things get pretty bleak. There are a few other random Faulkner tributes like a corncob metaphor but I think you can know nothing at all about Faulkner and still enjoy the book. It was on the Tournament of Books longlist so I wante I never would have known this were it not for the fact of the Faulkner class I'm taking, but this book takes the idea of As I Lay Dying and adapts it to 2013 Syria, as three siblings try to take their father's body to where he wanted to be buried. Shenanigans ensue and things get pretty bleak. There are a few other random Faulkner tributes like a corncob metaphor but I think you can know nothing at all about Faulkner and still enjoy the book. It was on the Tournament of Books longlist so I wanted to give it a try.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

    Translated works can be cumbersome to read. The translator has a colossal job of getting ideas and thought along with words from one culture to another. The Arabic culture is different in many ways from American culture. Translator Leri Price is the amazing translator of author Khaled Khalifa’s new novel “Death is Hard Work.” This is a short novel, a mere 180 pages. Yet, each sentence is complex and full of information and nuances that requires careful reading and rereading. There is so much goi Translated works can be cumbersome to read. The translator has a colossal job of getting ideas and thought along with words from one culture to another. The Arabic culture is different in many ways from American culture. Translator Leri Price is the amazing translator of author Khaled Khalifa’s new novel “Death is Hard Work.” This is a short novel, a mere 180 pages. Yet, each sentence is complex and full of information and nuances that requires careful reading and rereading. There is so much going on and communicated in this slip of a novel. First, it takes place in Syria in the midst of a bloody and cruel civil war. Although it’s the backdrop of the story, it takes on a life of itself. Abdel Latif dies of old age in a hospital in Damascus. Before he dies, he makes his youngest son promise that he will be buried in his ancestral village of Anabiya, which is a couple of hours from Damascus. But, because Syria is under brutal warfare, and many roadblocks occur between the two places, this request is weighty. Bolbol, the youngest son, enlists his older brother and his sister to help in the request. The three feel it’s their noble duty to get their father’s body to lay in rest in his requested spot. The horrors of the Syrian war are balanced by the absurdity of the war and of the journey. Khalifa deftly writes scenes that turns the readers stomach and makes the reader chuckle at the same time. Explosions, air raids, corps, decimated villages are in every page. But the siblings find problems at every roadblock. For instance, their father has an arrest warrant issued and the soldiers take the body into custody. The siblings expect the soldiers will be reverent and impressed that they are carrying out a duty; yet it’s pointed out that it’s rare that someone dies of old age. As the siblings journey to the village, the half day journey takes on days. Meanwhile the corpse is rotting, the stench is horrid, and it makes for sibling angst. Now the reader learns all the familial atrocities, real or imagined, that each one carries. It’s three days of airing dirty laundry and familial injustices. Khalifa uses these moments as humor fodder while the ambiance of the story is the horrific life of Syria. This novel is a reminder of Syrian’s conflict. Syria has taken a back seat to other news, which doesn’t make it less newsworthy. Khalifa, through this family drama, makes the reader live through the moment to moment, day to day horrors. This novel will stay with me for a long time.

  12. 5 out of 5

    LittleSophie

    I really wanted to like this novel more, but it was just unbelievably monotonous. I'm not sure how much that might be due to the translation or my lack of knowledge regarding Syrian culture and literature, but the narrative pace was really punishingly slow. The timeline was broken up into such small fragments, constantly jumping back and forth, that I got never really involved in the story. Direct speech is almost completely missing and combined with the similarly paced sentences, it took all imp I really wanted to like this novel more, but it was just unbelievably monotonous. I'm not sure how much that might be due to the translation or my lack of knowledge regarding Syrian culture and literature, but the narrative pace was really punishingly slow. The timeline was broken up into such small fragments, constantly jumping back and forth, that I got never really involved in the story. Direct speech is almost completely missing and combined with the similarly paced sentences, it took all impetus away. I herald the author's intent to highlight the absurdity and brutality of the Syrian civil war, the destructive force it has on the individual life, but the novel's execution unfortunately prevented me from really engaging with the characters and his subject.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sam

    I am thinking this may be one of my top ten this year and as such I want to fill the review with superlatives reflecting my enjoyment. But one thing I noticed having finished the book, was the number of mixed and poor reviews. I am not sure whether the other reviewers and I came to the novel with different expectations, but for me the novel succeeded on multiple levels and was a five star read. So rather than write superlatives, I will try and note a few reasons I liked the book. First, it displa I am thinking this may be one of my top ten this year and as such I want to fill the review with superlatives reflecting my enjoyment. But one thing I noticed having finished the book, was the number of mixed and poor reviews. I am not sure whether the other reviewers and I came to the novel with different expectations, but for me the novel succeeded on multiple levels and was a five star read. So rather than write superlatives, I will try and note a few reasons I liked the book. First, it displayed archetypal themes, and the author, "made them new."Archetypal themes lend resonance to the work. In this case the plot involves siblings honoring a father's death wish by taking his body on a journey back to his home town for burial with his sister, so the two main themes that resonate back to the epics are the caring of the dead and the journey. I am immediately reminded of Gilgamesh and Enkidu (or Achilles Hector and Patroclus in the Illiad) For journey, we refer to the epics once again with the Odyssey and the Aeneid being examples. Khalifa, like Faulkner in As I Lay Dying, has unified the two themes, but Khalifa has not merely expanded on Faulkner's idea. Khalifa's treatment is wholly different and offers a unique perpective. Second, I liked the style and structure of the novel. Khalifa used a type of understated existential prose reminiscent of Albert Camus' The Plague. I think this encourages the reader's response to be more philosophical than emotional and gets us to think on rather than react to the book, and this was a novel to be thought about after one finished. I liked how Khalifa employed his back story through the memories of the characters in tension breaking flashbacks during the journey. It disrupted the immediacy of the story but I think Khalifa was looking to tell a fuller story rather than just make a thriller. It forces the reader to think. It reminded me how film noir or spy novels often used that structure and I thought of Graham Greene. I might add that I thought the back stories were good subplots in this novel. Last, I saw the novel of a perfect example of a modern horror novel. What made this novel so effective as a horror novel was the many levels of horror that were broached whether the visceral, atmospheric, aspect of traveling on a heavily trafficked road in bad weather while carrying a deteriorating body, or the psychological element that is displayed in each sibling's thoughts or actions, or the overall apocalyptic chaos they encounter on the trip the horror is apparent at every level. I would like to see this filmed by a competent director. Enough babble! I think I conveyed my feelings about the novel and I hope some of you who share similar taste get to read the book.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Hákon Gunnarsson

    Wars are probably never simple affairs, but the Syrian civil war seems more complicated than most of the wars that have been in the news in the last decades. It is a civil war, and a proxy war. This novel is set in that horribly, complicated situation. When Abdul Latif is dying of old age he makes his son Bolbol promise him that he will be buried in his hometown Anabiya. Bolbol gets his brother Hussein, and his sister Fatima to take this trip with him even though they haven’t been close since the Wars are probably never simple affairs, but the Syrian civil war seems more complicated than most of the wars that have been in the news in the last decades. It is a civil war, and a proxy war. This novel is set in that horribly, complicated situation. When Abdul Latif is dying of old age he makes his son Bolbol promise him that he will be buried in his hometown Anabiya. Bolbol gets his brother Hussein, and his sister Fatima to take this trip with him even though they haven’t been close since they were kids. This small village is only 350 km from Damascus, so it shouldn’t be a long trip, but this is takes place three years into the civil war, so things aren't simple. It is an interesting premise for a novel, but I am a little unsure of what I think of the actual novel. It is a gruesome view into the war, that’s for sure, but the whole situation in Syria makes even less sense after the reading. In some sense, I find it compelling, maybe because of that, because it complicates this even further. At the same time I can’t say that I am a fan the way the story is told. The view goes from character to the next constantly, and occasionally I had to backtrack when I realized that the view had been changed without me noticing. It is an interesting view into the Syrian civil war as I said before, but it is needlessly confused by the way the narration is build up. But what surprised me the most is that it is almost as much about failure in love as it is about the war itself. It is sad novel, where almost no one seems to have found the right path in life. There is very little happiness, neither in the past or the present. The only one that had found happiness for a little while is the one that is already dead. I don’t know if that is meant to point to something about Syria as a whole, or that this story is just about an unhappy family, but either way there are times when this is quite a powerful image of the brutality, and the absurdity of war.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Lauren

    "Rites and rituals meant nothing now... for the first time, everyone was truly equal in death." . From DEATH IS HARD WORK by Khaled Khalifa, tr. from Arabic (Syria) by Leri Price, 2016 Arabic/ 2018 English. A father's dying wish to be buried in his home town, the promise made by a son. Three siblings set out from the hospital in Damascus with the body of their deceased father, planning the two-hour drive to his ancestral village near Aleppo and the Turkish border. This novella traces the lives of th "Rites and rituals meant nothing now... for the first time, everyone was truly equal in death." . From DEATH IS HARD WORK by Khaled Khalifa, tr. from Arabic (Syria) by Leri Price, 2016 Arabic/ 2018 English. A father's dying wish to be buried in his home town, the promise made by a son. Three siblings set out from the hospital in Damascus with the body of their deceased father, planning the two-hour drive to his ancestral village near Aleppo and the Turkish border. This novella traces the lives of the 3 siblings - Bolbol, Fatima, and Hussein - their relationship with their father and previously deceased mother, and the landscape of civil war and strife in their country. The journey of two hours extends to days as they pass through check points, detours, ghost towns, and as the corpse begins to decompose inside their van. A story of grief and war, but also of connections, and putting past wrongs aside to come together in the moment. Khalifa - and Price's translation of his original Arabic - flow beautifully. There are some scenes that made me pause to reread. Hisham Matar noted in his review (in The Guardian) that the Arabic title of this book actually translates more smoothly as 'Death is Hard Labor', drawing this link between death and life. The circumstances are certainly very different in the novella, but this opening quote (shared above) rings true in our present pandemic. (This title is also available as an audiobook on @hoopladigital if your public library offers that electronic service)

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    Having promised his dying father, Abdel Latif, that he will transport his body back to his hometown for burial, Bolbol enlists the help of his estranged brother Hussein and sister Fatima to carry out Abdel Latif’s wishes. But this simple promise is complicated by the fact that they are in Syria in the midst of a civil war, and the trip that they optimistically believe will take a day soon becomes a nightmarish odyssey where they are detained, questioned, bombed and imprisoned—all while their fat Having promised his dying father, Abdel Latif, that he will transport his body back to his hometown for burial, Bolbol enlists the help of his estranged brother Hussein and sister Fatima to carry out Abdel Latif’s wishes. But this simple promise is complicated by the fact that they are in Syria in the midst of a civil war, and the trip that they optimistically believe will take a day soon becomes a nightmarish odyssey where they are detained, questioned, bombed and imprisoned—all while their father’s body decomposes in their van along with the last remaining family bonds between them. When I read the synopsis of this book, it was impossible not to think of it as the Syrian As I Lay Dying. And, in fact, Death is Hard Work does share a lot of similarities with the Faulkner novel, not least of which is the surreal, almost absurdist, tone and the litany of troubles that complicate both journeys. What sets this book apart, however, is its depiction of a country torn by civil war, and the injustices, indignities and, ultimately, the inhumanity that brings. Author Abdel Latif was born near Aleppo and continues to live in Damascus despite the ongoing violence, and the realism that he is able to bring to the book’s setting as a result is both stunning and horrifying. As such, it’s a difficult book to read, but one which is well worth the effort and deserving of a wide readership. Recommended to anyone who wants to understand more about the Syrian conflict. Many thanks to Farrar, Straus and Giroux and NetGalley for providing me an ARC of this book in return for my honest review.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ella

    Pretty stunning. Who would think simply taking a father's body to his home village should be so hard, after all - it's typically just a two-hour drive. But Syria is a war zone, so the plan is more difficult than Bolbol/Nabil intially intends. There is much to love here -- the sibling relationships, the political situation brilliantly portrayed through one family's "simple" task, the land of Syria itself, everything is truly beautifully portrayed. I picked this up just because of the title/blurb Pretty stunning. Who would think simply taking a father's body to his home village should be so hard, after all - it's typically just a two-hour drive. But Syria is a war zone, so the plan is more difficult than Bolbol/Nabil intially intends. There is much to love here -- the sibling relationships, the political situation brilliantly portrayed through one family's "simple" task, the land of Syria itself, everything is truly beautifully portrayed. I picked this up just because of the title/blurb a while ago, but I moved it up the TBR once it was listed for the NBATL, and now I'm ashamed that I waited so long to read this one. When is burying a parent ever simple? The act could be, but the attending emotional effects not so much, and this novel is so simply complicated and intricate that it could've been easily dismissed, but not forgotten.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    This book is one of the most quietly devastating things I've read in a long time. It takes place in present-day Syria and tells the story of three estranged siblings who come together to carry out their father's final wish. He wants to be buried in the village he was born in. The two brothers and their sister load up his body into a minibus and embark on a journey from Damascus to Anabiya that should take two and a half hours. But the journey through countless checkpoints, delays due to shelling This book is one of the most quietly devastating things I've read in a long time. It takes place in present-day Syria and tells the story of three estranged siblings who come together to carry out their father's final wish. He wants to be buried in the village he was born in. The two brothers and their sister load up his body into a minibus and embark on a journey from Damascus to Anabiya that should take two and a half hours. But the journey through countless checkpoints, delays due to shelling on the road ahead, and detainment by a myriad of armies from foreign countries drags the journey out over days. And all the while, the body is decaying. The author, Khaled Khalifa, is uniquely positioned to write this novel—he lives in Damascus and has refused to leave, despite the increasing danger. This novel (originally in Arabic) won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature and was translated into English by Leri Price. Dark, absurd, and disturbing, this novel is not an easy read, and it is one that I will not be able to soon forget.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Furger

    This was gorgeous but tough to get through for the sensitive among us (me). The best comparison from western lit would probably be “All Quiet on the Western Front” - heartbreaking and raw. Brilliant writing. I’m embarrassed to say that this is my first book by Khalid Khalifa but it will certainly not be the last.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Tom Hughes

    Wow. Wonderfully difficult and humane. A vivid picture of life and death in Syria, with thankfully fleshed out characters. I know nothing of the country, but Khalifa articulates here a sharp and very harsh world with fantastic complexity and doubt, and if it's one of which I shudder to think. Eye opening.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Catherine at The Gilmore Guide to Books

    Bolbol's father has just died in Damascus. Before he did, he made one final request of his son-he wants to be buried in the family's plot in his hometown. It's two hours away and without thinking Bolbol agrees. It's only as he's contacting his sister, Fatima, and his brother, Hussein, that the enormity of his promise hits him. This is Syria, a country being destroyed by its government's attacks on its own citizens. In Khaled Khalifa's Death is Hard Work what would once have been a quick trip wil Bolbol's father has just died in Damascus. Before he did, he made one final request of his son-he wants to be buried in the family's plot in his hometown. It's two hours away and without thinking Bolbol agrees. It's only as he's contacting his sister, Fatima, and his brother, Hussein, that the enormity of his promise hits him. This is Syria, a country being destroyed by its government's attacks on its own citizens. In Khaled Khalifa's Death is Hard Work what would once have been a quick trip will turn into a Kafkaesque nightmare. Death is Hard Work is a dark novel, not in the way of a horror film, but in the way of deadened emotion. It's set in a country where a two-hour trip takes three days due to impassable roads, government checkpoints, snipers, the secret police, and interrogations. The constant presence of death is enervating and Khalifa shows that with his characters, especially Bolbol. Having lived in Damascus and with no inclination to leave the city, he has no idea that the trip is virtually impossible. But still he perseveres, gathering his sister and older brother to go with him. They agree, despite the fact that they have been estranged for the last decade and play no part in each other's lives. Some hard-to-grasp form of family honor takes over their rational minds, but within hours the obstacles are already such that Hussein wants to leave his father's body by the side of the road. Because, yes, they are literally transporting his body with them in a minivan, resting on blocks of ice. It feels wrong to say death is farcical but that is precisely what happens, in the most gruesome ways possible, in Death is Hard Work. At one point, their father's body is arrested at a checkpoint, because he was once wanted years ago by the secret police. Then there is the fact of three siblings who don't even like each other being trapped by a sense of duty in a van with a rapidly decomposing corpse. The novel feels like a macabre version of Waiting for Godot-something important is supposed to happen, but the truth of the matter is the waiting itself. Except this waiting takes place at checkpoints, in isolation cells, in flashbacks to scenes of terror by government. Basically, the hellscape that is modern day Syria. The inhabitants of the city regarded everyone they saw as not so much "alive" as "pre-dead". It gave them a little relief from their frustration and anger. A family corpse is not the only way Khalifa drives home the surreal nature of Syrian life. There is normal conversation amongst colleagues about how best to wrap your windows in plastic so when they are shattered by bombs or gunfire they don't turn into shrapnel. Or the best way to spend hours stuck at a checkpoint. The fact that in many towns starving dogs without owners, feast on the dead because there is no one to bury all the corpses or feed the animals. If this is making you wonder why you would read this book, I understand. Death is Hard Work is not an enjoyable novel, but with its absurdist (to Westerners) premise and lethargic, fatalist characters it conveys an almost invasive sense of place. In a mere 192 pages it stamped me with a greyed-out numbness. It's also worth noting that Khalifa is a Syrian native and lives there to this day, leading me to believe that his fiction is more fact than imagination. For that reason alone, I think this newly translated novel is important reading, especially for those who like looking beyond the comfort of their own worldview.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    I had no idea what reading this book would be like. Three siblings in Syria in 2015 are trying to get their father's corpse from Damascus to Anabiya to bury him and the difficulty of a journey in war-torn Syria becomes almost impossible. The civil war permeates this book, along with the memories of each member of the family of their lives before and during the war. The siblings are not close. During the spells on the road where travel is not so difficult (although the stench of the putrifying bod I had no idea what reading this book would be like. Three siblings in Syria in 2015 are trying to get their father's corpse from Damascus to Anabiya to bury him and the difficulty of a journey in war-torn Syria becomes almost impossible. The civil war permeates this book, along with the memories of each member of the family of their lives before and during the war. The siblings are not close. During the spells on the road where travel is not so difficult (although the stench of the putrifying body in the minivan never goes away), the author takes time to go back to the past and reminisce about the lives led by members of this family. I saw the horrors of this war and the emptiness in people's souls, the uselessness of living, and the inevitability of dying. In the interim, the siblings seek to find some sort of comfort zone, if only to escape for a time the ugliness of the world.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth☮

    I gave this more than forty pages and then gave up. I kept falling asleep while reading it. That doesn’t necessarily mean the book put me to sleep. My days of teaching are taxing and this week was state testing which is somehow more exhausting than teaching. Maybe this was the wrong book at the wrong time. The premise definitely is interesting: a son is fulfilling his father’s dying wish of burying him at the same cemetery where his sister is buried. The problem is the story is set in war torn S I gave this more than forty pages and then gave up. I kept falling asleep while reading it. That doesn’t necessarily mean the book put me to sleep. My days of teaching are taxing and this week was state testing which is somehow more exhausting than teaching. Maybe this was the wrong book at the wrong time. The premise definitely is interesting: a son is fulfilling his father’s dying wish of burying him at the same cemetery where his sister is buried. The problem is the story is set in war torn Syria and the cemetery is located clear across the country so the son and his siblings must navigate some dangerous situations. But I will never know if that last wish is fulfilled. Sigh.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Mrs. Danvers

    This odyssey with a rotting corpse reminded me of Kafka and some of the old existentialist novels, like The Woman in the Dunes, but it has an interiority missing from those. This odyssey with a rotting corpse reminded me of Kafka and some of the old existentialist novels, like The Woman in the Dunes, but it has an interiority missing from those.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Νατάσα Παυλίτσεβιτς

    This novel is sad, difficult and important. It raises many good questions one of which is: once you've lost your sense of self, is life even worth living?

  26. 4 out of 5

    Cora

    This book is about three siblings in modern day Syria trying to fulfill their father's dying wish to be buried in the town he grew up with, where is sister is buried. The trip, which would take only a few hours in peace-time, is a multi-day journey through dangerous, war-torn Syria. While the horrors of war is the back drop of this story, it is primarily a story about ordinary people trying to live their lives amidst the war. The trio have to maneuver through areas controlled by both sides of th This book is about three siblings in modern day Syria trying to fulfill their father's dying wish to be buried in the town he grew up with, where is sister is buried. The trip, which would take only a few hours in peace-time, is a multi-day journey through dangerous, war-torn Syria. While the horrors of war is the back drop of this story, it is primarily a story about ordinary people trying to live their lives amidst the war. The trio have to maneuver through areas controlled by both sides of the war, and they all present a danger to them in their own ways. The book didn't really take sides in the conflict, although you do know where the characters' (and perhaps the author's) sympathies lie, rather it presents a country torn up and devastated by the violence of war and how that takes a toll on the people who live there. A simple trip to bury a father becomes a dangerous ordeal. The characters aren't exactly likable, but I found myself hoping that they find what they needed none the less. Despite their character flaws, they take a dangerous journey to do what they felt they needed to do for a father that they were not particularly close to. I do feel like I was left with a more complete understanding of what ordinary people are going through in Syria and other areas of the world that are suffering from wars. If I have one criticism it was that the story of the the sister was not as developed as the two brothers. I would have liked to understand her motivations and backstory more - but perhaps that says something about modern day Syria as well. However, other female characters are more complete characters (mostly seen through the eyes of a male character).

  27. 5 out of 5

    Andy Weston

    This is a strangely attractive concoction of a road trip stroke life during wartime novel, and a glimpse into modern day Syria, with a feeling that maybe you shouldn’t be looking at their suffering, a bit like the compulsion to look at a road accident on the opposite carriageway. On his death bed Bolbol has promised his father that he would bury him in the family plot several hours drive away across the county. As alluring the premise is, there is only so much about the background of Bolbol and This is a strangely attractive concoction of a road trip stroke life during wartime novel, and a glimpse into modern day Syria, with a feeling that maybe you shouldn’t be looking at their suffering, a bit like the compulsion to look at a road accident on the opposite carriageway. On his death bed Bolbol has promised his father that he would bury him in the family plot several hours drive away across the county. As alluring the premise is, there is only so much about the background of Bolbol and his family that interests, only so many checkpoints they pass through before repetition takes over. The state of the body deteriorates of course, and at times Khalifa writes with some carefully placed black humour. But there isn’t enough; either of the humour or to the depth of the story.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Mishap

    The brutal cruelty of the violence in Syria is the all too real world of this novel. The mind-smashing and relentless, careless depravity and degradation of all that makes us human is on display here, somewhat diffused through the lens of art. Can I recommend this? Yes. We can hear and see the news stories, but comprehension of what is happening in Syria can more easily be attained through novels like this. As an outsider with no experience of the grind of war, I'm sure I missed much of the dark The brutal cruelty of the violence in Syria is the all too real world of this novel. The mind-smashing and relentless, careless depravity and degradation of all that makes us human is on display here, somewhat diffused through the lens of art. Can I recommend this? Yes. We can hear and see the news stories, but comprehension of what is happening in Syria can more easily be attained through novels like this. As an outsider with no experience of the grind of war, I'm sure I missed much of the dark satire and nuances, but it was still an amazing journey.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kaleigh

    Entrancing in its own sparse, brutal way. Major themes of death and the inexorable dehumanizing effects of war on an entire population were only to be expected in a chronicle of the Syrian civil war.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas

    As I Lay Dying in Syria.

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