"What does it mean when a society disintegrates? What do people do? How do they make sense of a world in which the human dimension is missing completely?"
Iraqi author, poet and academic Sinan Antoon is speaking at a literary event in London to celebrate his achievement in being awarded the 2014 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. The only prize of its kind to recognise the value of literary translation from Arabic to English, Antoon beat 16 other entries for the translation of his own novel The Corpse Washer (whose Arabic title literally translates as "The Lone Pomegranate Tree"). Antoon has previously received recognition for his novel l'jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody and his collection of poems The Baghdad Blues, as well as his 2003 documentary About Baghdad.
A softly-spoken and intellectual man (he currently holds the post of associate professor at New York University), Antoon is nevertheless an imposing presence, and the upper floor of Waterstone's in Piccadilly is filled with a silently-expectant hush as he takes his seat across from Paul Blezard, a broadcaster and writer and one of the judges of this year's Banipal Prize. It is rare that a literary event celebrates the achievements and pitfalls of translation as an art form, and even rarer to have the dual personas of author and translator inhabiting the same body.
"Works are never finished, they are only abandoned," says Antoon, in response to a question regarding his decision to translate his own work. "For me these characters are real, their lives are real, and I wanted to have the chance to re-inhabit their world, if only for a short while."
Antoon's novel is set in contemporary Baghdad and chronicles the story of Jawad, an aspiring artist who is forced by circumstance into following into his family's traditional trade of mghassilchi (literally "washer"), washing and preparing the bodies of the dead for religious burial. It is in the humid, sanitised space of the wash house (mghaysil) that both Jawad and the reader are confronted with the spectre of death, whose macabre incarnation takes on ever-increasing grotesque forms as the novel progresses through the 2003 US-led invasion and the ensuing carnage that followed.
"I read a story in a newspaper about a corpse washer in Baghdad," says Antoon, "and how he was able to make a lot of money during the civil war because of the increase in demand. When I read the story, I knew I wanted to write a novel about this corpse washer… I have always been haunted by the image of working men and women who have to live and work every day and don't have the option to give up."
It is this focus on the private, mundane setting of working life – the day to day running of the wash house and the parade of bodies that pass through its walls – that allows the novel to be both intimate and far-reaching in its scope. The wash house becomes a microcosm of Baghdad, and of Iraq, during the bloody years of sectarian conflict; a lens through which the brutality and violence of current events are distilled and regain their human dimension. In this sense, it is Jawad, as the corpse washer, who "experiences the full act of violence", even after death has taken hold of the bodies it has claimed.
This haunting, deathly presence that pervades the novel is emphasised by the lyrical prose and almost poetic phraseology. Indeed, Antoon confesses to being heavily influenced by classical Arabic poetry, and expresses some frustration that the cadence of the original language cannot be faithfully rendered in English. This is not merely because English lacks the same poetic repertoire of Arabic, but also because English audiences are simply less sympathetic to metaphor and imagery. The Arabic title of the novel, for example, was rejected by Yale University Press as being too obscure, and replaced with a more literal reference to the novel's subject-matter.
Another aspect of the novel lost in translation is the fact that Antoon deliberately rendered all of the dialogue in colloquial Iraqi Arabic – a hat-tip to the working class roots of the characters and the grim reality of their lives eked out through the quotidian dealing with death and decay.
But this is not merely a story about the lingering effects of death, it is also a lament to a lost Iraq; the Iraq of the author's childhood, "a place that has been effaced".
Born into a Christian family in Baghdad, Antoon left the country in 1991 at the age of 23 to pursue studies abroad. Like many Iraqis of his generation, he feels cut-off and alienated from the Iraq of today, and strives to reconnect with the country and the culture once so familiar to him. In part, he admits, writing The Corpse Washer and his other works is a way of keeping in touch with this past.
"Being away from Iraq I tried to compensate by obsessively following the news," he says. Writing the novel was therefore "a way of trying to process the news coming out of Iraq… The last three decades are the most violent in the country's history. They have changed everything."
The research process for The Corpse Washer, he says, was part of his personal journey to familiarise himself with modern Iraq, and especially to try to understand the intimate lives and rituals of the Shia community, around which this novel is based. Part of this research process, he says, involved making use of the live feed web-cam at the Al Kadhum shrine in Kadhimiya (a predominately Shia district of Baghdad, and where the novel is set) – thus pointing to the convergence of modernity and tradition in evolving religious and social practices.
"It is easy to think that these people have all these strange traditions and rituals, and that they do things differently, but when you get close your realise they are just human like the rest of us," he comments.
And indeed, despite the weighty and often macabre subject of the book, there is hope – and humanity, too. Antoon affirms that despite the seeming never-ending spiral of death and destruction in his homeland, he remains optimistic about the country's future prospects, especially when it comes to the younger generation. It is the youth, he says, who have been born into a new era free from the tyranny of dictatorship and determined to make good even amidst the chaos that surrounds them.
"A major problem with how Iraqis and non-Iraqis look at Iraq is that they conflate Saddam Hussein and the Ba'athi state with something called 'Iraqi society' and 'Iraqi culture'… We are erasing our own history… But they youth don't make that same mistake – Iraq to them is not the Iraq of Saddam."