There exists an unwritten rule in book reviewing, one particularly adhered to in transatlantic publishing circles, which states that a critic should either say good things about a debut novel or nothing at all. A fair deal is not encouraged, it is required. The fledgling writer deserves a chance after enduring his or her long creative slog and sweating out the further ordeal from pitch to publication. For the critic, a rigorous critical dissection, even a hatchet job, may only begin with the second novel, when the writer under scrutiny is considered tough enough to weather the blows. Critics, hitherto held back, feverishly sharpen their nibs to skewer that difficult second novel, one that invariably arrives in the shadow of its more accomplished predecessor. Many a writer falls at this hurdle, cut ruthlessly back down to size and forced to prove their credentials all over again.
The Corpse Washer is the second novel by the Baghdad-born, New York-based writer Sinan Antoon. But make no mistake: this is no difficult second novel. 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. Indeed, Antoon seems to just get better and better, his third novel, Ya Maryam, being recently shortlisted for the 2013 Arabic Booker Prize. Antoon is also an acclaimed poet and translator, as The Corpse Washer testifies: 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.
At the heart of his novel is Jawad, our protagonist, born to a Shiite family of corpse washers and shrouders in Baghdad. He takes us through his life, intercutting past with present and overlying both with snapshots of nightmares brought on by the choppy waves of violence that engulf his city and the growing number of dead bodies that pass through his wash house. "If death is a postman, then I receive his letters every day," runs one of many artful metaphors. "I am the one who opens carefully the bloodied and torn envelopes. I am the one who washes them, who removes the stamps of death and dries and perfumes them, mumbling what I don't really believe in. Then I wrap them carefully in white so they may reach their final reader - the grave."
But Jawad takes us back and explains that mghassilchi - body washer - was not his intended vocation. He recounts his apprenticeship with his father and recalls his military service, at the same time stressing his love of art and desire to sculpt and craft. Flouting his father's wishes, Jawad enters Baghdad's Academy of Fine Arts where he meets and falls for the alluring Reem. Family strife and death are eclipsed by art and love. But the serenity is short-lived, a calm before the Desert Storm. War breaks out, then economic sanctions inflict further damage on the Iraqi people. Jawad scrimps and struggles and loses loved ones but manages to stay afloat. However, as he learns to his cost, these hardships are a mere preamble. The 2003 invasion deposes a tyrant, promises peace but ends up triggering sectarian slaughter. Amid the brutality - indeed as a result of it - Jawad has no choice but to abandon his chosen career path for the mghaysil and the work originally designated for him. Suddenly, that postman of death is bringing more letters than ever before. Love is sidelined for duty, art is shelved for death as Jawad faces up to dark, new challenges and conflict within his tortured soul.