The book is interested inthat blindness of fate and the accidental nature of life, as well as the extent to which an individual can sustain his or her ambivalence in the face of a civil war. Confronted with binary choices, doubt is an active position. Bolbol is not for the opposition or the regime. Instead, his main enemy is fear. ... A civil war is a national tragedy, but it is also, and perhaps most poignantly, a personal trial. The most amazing thing about this book is that it managed to exist, that it came to us out of the fire with its pages intact. It is robust in its doubts, humane in its gaze and gentle in its persistence.
Leri Price, who has to date translated all of Khalifa’s books into English, retains the original’s sharpness and a pacy tone that recalls other Arab political novels, in particular Fadhil Al Azzawi’s Cell Block Five (2008). As such, and despite its relentlessly bleak subject matter, Death Is Hard Work is intensely readable. As the pages turn, one is impelled to keep up with the al-Salim siblings as they race against time — literally, given that their father’s body is rapidly decomposing, filling the back of the minivan with maggots... Although the ending feels slightly abrupt, this novel achieves a narrative cohesion perhaps not fully realised in Khalifa’s previous work, No Knives in the Kitchens of This City (2016), which was awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for its chronicling of life in Aleppo in the mid-to-late 20th century. Wryly compelling, despite the author’s pessimistic outlook, Death Is Hard Work may be Khalifa’s finest achievement yet, movingly conveying the fear, paranoia and hardships of life in an embattled police state.
The family dynamic is examined forensically, as more and more information seeps out in flashbacks about the lives that their father had wanted them to lead. He himself had cast off all such constraints towards the end of his own life, running around chasing butterflies with Nevine, his new young love, oblivious to the danger of bombs. His putrefying corpse mirrors his family’s fraying relationships, as well as the corruption of the Syrian state, the cadaver’s passage through the checkpoints eased only by ever-increasing backhanders. Death, in Khaled Khalifa’s telling, really is hard work.
All of which makes his fifth novel, Death Is Hard Work, a hugely brave undertaking, presenting as it does an unflinching portrait of daily life in his native land – a place where, after years of fighting, otherwise unimaginable horrors have come to seem mundane.