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.