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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

The Book of Collateral Damage

by
Sinan Antoon


general information | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Book of Collateral Damage



Title: The Book of Collateral Damage
Author: Sinan Antoon
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 302 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Book of Collateral Damage - US
The Book of Collateral Damage - UK
The Book of Collateral Damage - Canada
  • Arabic title: فهرس
  • Translated by Jonathan Wright

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective, and easily engaging

See our review for fuller assessment.




The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of The Book of Collateral Damage is named Nameer al-Baghdadi but his life-story closely mirrors that of author Antoon, certainly in the outlines. The novel begins with Iraqi-born Nameer returning to Baghdad for the first time in a decade, in 2003, working on a film (as did Antoon), and then recounts the next several years and stations in his life as he struggles to finish his dissertation, gets a position at Dartmouth for a few years, and then winds up teaching at NYU (exactly as Antoon did) -- all the while struggling also to write a book. Among the small differences between Nameer and the author is that Nameer too came across The New York Times' story of a body-washer which inspired Antoon's The Corpse Washer, but, while Nameer also collects material and: "thought about writing a novel about Raad Abboud and people like him" [note: in The New York Times piece Abboud's first name is given as 'Riad', not 'Raad'] he finds himself unable to: "I didn't write anything. I often tried but I didn't succeed, so the folder stayed as it was".
       The Book of Collateral Damage is, essentially, the story of another book Nameer wants to, and finally succeeds in writing, inspired by a man he met while in Baghdad in 2003, Wadood Abdulkarim, a bookseller on the city's famous book-row, al-Mutanabbi Street. Nameer is intrigued by a project Wadood has been working on, collecting newspaper clippings and notes to form a grand catalogue:

     This is the project of a lifetime, an archive of the losses from war and destruction. But not soldiers or equipment. The losses that are never mentioned or seen. Not just people. Animals and plants and inanimate things and anything that can be destroyed. Minute by minute. This is the file for the first minute.
       The original Arabic title of The Book of Collateral Damage is فهرس -- Fihris -- and that's the title of Wadood's work as well: "Fihris, a catalog of every minute, of everything that died in that minute".
       Wadood is ambivalent about sharing his work, claiming he doesn't want to publish it, while Nameer tries to convince him that it deserves to reach a larger audience, and offers his services in translating parts of it into English. In the years that follow, Wadood continues to be uncertain what he wants to do with the work, but the two maintain some contact and Wadood does give Nameer some excerpts, while Nameer continues to toy with the idea of writing something based on the material (Wadood and/or his project).
       These selections from Wadood's Fihris are interspersed throughout the novel, between Nameer's narrative. They are creatively imagined pieces, of people and things lost in the most recent war, often in the voice of the (often inanimate) object itself. Among the things whose often long history and then abrupt end are presented are: a tree, a carpet, a stamp album, a race horse, a cassette-tape, a wall, and a film-roll from a camera and its twenty-four negatives. The contrast to the straightforward realism of the rest of the narrative is effective, and the fantastical pieces themselves nicely done and quite moving -- even as the inevitable conclusion, that final one minute, is always foregone.
       Nameer's narrative putters along nicely too, as he leads readers through his stations -- and his writing frustrations (the notebook he took with him to Baghdad, "bought specially to record my impressions during this visit", remains practically blank: "The first night was the only night I wrote anything -- that one word, Baghdad"), first with his dissertation and then with a more creative work he'd like to write. Wadood's Fihris is both inspiration and retreat:
I sneak into Wadood's catalog and hide my dismembered body parts and my ramblings in the folds of his first minute. I extend it.
       Wadood is very much a kindred spirit -- including being similarly uncomfortable with many of the people around him, explaining his retreat to the oasis of al-Mutanabbi Street:
It was just a matter of escaping from a little social hell to somewhere I had more space. This little room from which I am writing you is my real homeland because it is full of books and every book is like a whole sky. It also contains my catalog, which in turn will contain everything I know and can imagine.
       Nameer at least engages and interacts with the world to some extent in more conventional form; if there is (regrettably) little about his classroom-life, he does lead readers far and wide on his peregrinations, describing a considerable variety of encounters and experiences; he also does then have a girlfriend in New York, in an apparently satisfying relationship (after a less successful long-distance one earlier on).
       In New York, Nameer also begins to see a therapist, and some of their exchanges are also chronicled. Though he abandons therapy, it does seem to help, and also leads him to examine more of his own earlier life, and his experiences with his family.
       When Nameer mentions his difficulty getting anywhere with his writing, his therapist also gives him good advice:
Why don't you write about things unrelated to the subject of the novel ? About your daily life, for example ?
       This is what he then does in The Book of Collateral Damage -- and it works well, moving the story along and helping to prevent it getting too caught up simply in the abstract (as, arguably, Wadood is).
       Wadood repeatedly observes that: "We are all books" -- and he notes:
Anyway, we are books, and I'm a book a part of which has been lost forever. This is what I imagine, but I also feel that it's a tangible fact. Someone has torn up many of my pages or stolen them or hidden them or burned them ....
       Of course, what Nameer/Antoon is ultimately doing is making a book of Wadood -- and also (trying to) make him whole, as well as trying to make himself whole.
       Early on, Wadood explained about his project:
There are people who write in order to change the present or the future, whereas I dream of changing the past. This is my rationale and the rationale of my catalog.
       Turning repeatedly to Wadood's project, which accompanies him over the years, Nameer also is at least able to delve into the past, his own and his country's. The many examples of things, as well as people, affected by war -- each, inevitably, crushed in that final minute Wadood obsesses over -- present an unchangeable past, but at least captures some, and a sense, of what is lost.
       This, ultimately, is also what Nameer/Antoon attempts. The Book of Collateral Damage is a two-part novel, divided into 'Beginnings' and 'Endings'. The former dominates, with the latter making up barely one-twentieth of the novel, but these (attempted) endings make an effective closing-off of the story (and helping to validate Antoon's decision to present this, in many ways, as a trying-to-write-a-novel novel).
       The correspondence between Nameer's and Antoon's own life can be distracting, and contrasts somewhat oddly with the flights of fantasy that make up the interspersed catalogue-examples. Much of the novel feels almost like Antoon walking through his own biography, with anecdotal experiences woven in (sometimes very jarringly, as when he mentions a language-student at Dartmouth eager to get to Arabic imperatives); the disconnect -- of just how much Nameer is a stand-in for the author -- remains a bit too much in the fore, but his/their journey, in the present and into the past, is an interesting one to follow.
       For all the back and forth, in time, place, and -- in the imagined catalog entries -- wide-ranging perspective, The Book of Collateral Damage reads extraordinarily smoothly; Antoon subtly does a lot right here in his presentation, making for a very breezy read -- yet one that's also of considerable substance and great depth.
       Building on a neatly spun-out idea, The Book of Collateral Damage is well presented, and effective in portraying the devastating cost of war and all that is lost in it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 June 2019

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Links:

The Book of Collateral Damage: Reviews: Sinan Antoon: Other books by Sinan Antoon under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Iraqi author Sinan Antoon (سنان أنطون) was born in 1967. He left Iraq in 1991 and currently teaches at NYU.

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© 2019 the complete review

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