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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Corpse Washer

Sinan Antoon

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To purchase The Corpse Washer

Title: The Corpse Washer
Author: Sinan Antoon
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 184 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Corpse Washer - US
The Corpse Washer - UK
The Corpse Washer - Canada
Seul le grenadier - France
  • Arabic title: وحدها شجرة الرمان
  • Translated by the author

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting glimpses of life in Iraq in recent decades

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The National A 3/8/2013 Malcolm Forbes
The NY Rev. of Books . 25/9/2014 Max Rodenbeck

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Corpse Washer is a remarkable achievement, a novel that comes with the unerring confidence of an assured debut and the accomplished air of a mid-career high. (...) Antoon has expertly translated it into English from the original Arabic without sacrificing its lyrical cadences or, as is often the case in translation, pressing too hard to convey imagery. The result is a compact masterpiece, a taut, powerful and utterly absorbing tale that, with luck, will secure Antoon a wider, more international readership. (...) The Corpse Washer is no breezy beach-read but it is by no means all doom and gloom. Candid rather than cheerless, it offers a valuable portrait of the city as a battlefield, of life under fire and the resilience of the human spirit." - Malcolm Forbes, The National

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of The Corpse Washer, Jawad, is the son of: "a mghassilchi, a body-washer", who performs the ritual washing and shrouding of corpses before burial in Baghdad. The novel is a loose account of Jawad's life in changing Iraq over the decades -- reflected also in the father's (and then, for a while, his) job. When Jawad was young: "death back then was timid and more measured than today"; in the post-Saddam years of the American occupation the bodies -- and violent and unnatural deaths -- pile up much more quickly. What was a simple, elegant ritual becomes a much more demanding and messy exercise.
       Both Jawad's older brother and then Jawad are introduced to the corpse-washing profession, which has been in the family for generations. Jawad's older brother was a very good student and went on to study medicine, but he was killed in the Iran-Iraq war. Jawad's interests lay elsewhere, and he went on to study art, disappointing his father, who had hoped he would follow in his footsteps. Eventually, after his father's death, Jawad is pulled back into the old family job (though his heart is never quite in it, as he finds himself tormented by what he has to deal with).
       Antoon presents and uses the ritual of corpse-washing very well in the novel. The young Jawad is curious about what his father does, but is only gradually introduced to the whole process. The repeated, familiar motions and smells are not so much desensitizing as they are reassuring, suggesting death can be part of a natural order. This is all the more effective when death becomes largely unnatural -- such as when relatives bring in just the head of man who had been kidnapped, his body held for ransom (and not returned), and then when the endless flow of casualties of the post-Saddam era begins, when:

We'd thought the value of human life had reached rock-bottom under the dictatorship and that it would now rebound, but the opposite happened. Corpses piled up like goals scored by death on behalf of rabid teams in a never-ending game.
       (Antoon's presentation isn't entirely convincing: while showing Jawad's childhood fascination with what his father does, and then describing his apprenticeship his ambivalence is not presented nearly clearly enough, and it comes as a surprise to learn: "I had always lied when asked about his profession, claiming that he ran a store. Was I ashamed or embarrassed ?" It's unfortunate that he didn't explore that question more openly.)
       While the profession of corpse-washing plays a central role in the novel, the story does extend far beyond that and Antoon doses the actual corpse-handling so that it is not too dominant. The Corpse Washer is a Bildungsroman that also describes Jawad trying to find his way as an artist (with limited success in post-war Iraq), as well as trying to find love. There are two significant women in his life: Reem, whom he met as a student, and Ghayda', a cousin who comes to live with Jawad and his mother, along with her mother and brother, when life in their neighborhood gets too dangerous.
       The relationships with the two women are quite well handled; Jawad falling into the arms of the girl living in the same house is perhaps too easily predictable, but the complex relationship with Reem certainly isn't.
       An uncle who had moved abroad in Saddam's times, because of his communist affiliations, is also an interesting figure. His brief visit to Iraq after the American occupation, and his disappointment with what has happened -- and especially the sectarian divides that were being put up everywhere -- makes for a particularly interesting section of the novel.
       The Corpse Washer is a somewhat uneven grab-bag of a novel in its shifting focus (and occasional nightmares). The calm of much of the narrative, in contrast to much fiction set in countries in such turmoil, impresses, as even a scene such as the taking of Jawad's father's corpse for burial in Najaf, just after the Americans have rolled into the country, isn't played to the hilt (as it easily could be). Indeed, the novel is very good at presenting the everyday as everyday, even as there is terrible and arbitrary violence all around; as such, it is a very welcome picture of modern Iraq.
       Antoon also writes quite well (in English, too, as he has translated the novel himself), but he doesn't quite get a natural storytelling-flow down. Jawad-as-artist, for example, is presented only in a few fits and spurts, and elsewhere too there's too little follow-through. So The Corpse Washer remains a somewhat shapeless work of fiction, a vehicle for some scenes and stories and impressions Antoon wanted to relate (and generally does quite well), without quite jelling into any real (or sufficient) whole. It makes for an interesting glimpse of recent and contemporary life in Iraqi that does cover a lot of ground -- but too much is only fleetingly glimpsed or addressed.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 July 2013

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The Corpse Washer: 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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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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