When I sat down this month to read Phil Klay’s new book of short stories, Redeployment, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was eavesdropping on a conversation I wasn’t meant to hear.
The conversation wasn’t among Klay’s characters or Klay and other war-veteran authors. I thought Klay’s book was speaking most directly to the Iraqi author Sinan Antoon. The resemblance between Antoon’s newest novel, The Corpse Washer, and Klay’s book—although one is translated from Arabic—is at times so startling that I began to wonder if the authors knew each other.
Not every writer can pull off telling a novel-length story from the perspective of the person whose job it is to wash the dead during a time of war. But Antoon’s novel The Corpse Washer does so beautifully. Antoon possesses the ability to write from laid-bare, seemingly despicable perspectives, and so does Klay. In “Bodies,” the same smells and feelings of disgust haunt Klay’s narrator, a marine who works in a mortuary unit, as Jawad, the Iraqi corpse washer.
“There were times, after dealing with the remains, when I’d grab a piece of my flesh and pull it back so I could see it stretch, and I’d think, This is me, this is all I am,” writes Klay. The same sense of dreamlike horror permeates The Corpse Washer. Here’s Antoon, writing from the perspective of Jawad: “I cannot wake up from this endless nightmare of wakefulness… My desk is the bench of death.”
Jawad records the names of the dead and their causes of death in a notebook. Antoon’s descriptions of his narrator washing the dead are ritualistic and beautiful. “He was wire-thin,” Antoon writes. “His bones and ribs were visible. I put my arm under his neck to lift him and pull the sheet from under his body. I got goose bumps.” Klay’s narrator, while engaged in the same type of work, belies the trauma with vulgarity. He makes up lies about rotting Iraqi corpses to gross out people who ask him about Iraq, an open act of defiance against those who can reduce human life to anecdotes. But Klay’s narrator also handles remains with delicacy. “The hands, though, were clenched around two objects,” Klay writes. “We had to work at them carefully to pry them out. Corporal G had the left hand. I had the right. ‘Careful,’ he said. ‘Careful. Careful. Careful.’ He was saying it to himself.”
Each author forces us to confront our fascination with the dead, albeit with different tactics. Antoon lovingly depicts the names, shapes, and mourning family members of the dead. Klay’s account throws the vulgarity of Iraq in our faces. Both strategies are equally affecting. Each author records scenes of bodies fished from rivers, bodies dumped on trash heaps and booby-trapped bodies. Each writes with visceral disgust about the stray dogs that feed on human flesh. Each strains to reclaim the humanity of bodies that have been tossed away like the other debris of war.
In both books, characters’ relationships to their bodies and the bodies of others transform. Antoon renders tender lovemaking scenes between Jawad and his college sweetheart near the beginning of The Corpse Washer, and they provide welcome reprieves from the chaos that is engulfing the couple. But then she develops breast cancer—rates of cancer are thought to be very high in Iraq—and leaves for Jordan. When doctors remove one of her breasts, Jawad’s sweetheart joins the ranks of Iraq’s mangled bodies. After that, Jawad seems unable to form the same attachment to women or really to anyone. “I knew that my heart was a hole one could pass through but never reside in,” Jawad says.
Klay’s characters also lose sensitivity. Soldiers who have returned home go directly to strip clubs and use war stories to pick up women in bars. The narrator in “Bodies” wonders briefly whether he’s raped a drunken woman, although prior to Iraq he’d had a sweet, almost innocent relationship with a high school girlfriend. After he sleeps with the drunken woman, he observes, “The next morning we woke up, hung over, on those Transformer sheets, and she looked disgusted. Like I was unclean. Being in Mortuary Affairs, I knew that look well.”
But there are other reasons to compare the two books. They hold up mirrors to each other: as Antoon reflects American soldiers, Klay reflects Iraqis. This is why the two authors should live side by side on our bookshelves; why, in book reviews, we should stop comparing America’s newest vet writers to the war writers of old. The worn-out comparisons between Tim O’Brien, Joseph Heller, etc. and Iraq war writing usually amount to little more than name-dropping. And they ignore the long, rich history of writing about war in Arabic—writing that many of the newest vet writers, Klay included, have said inspired them.
Klay describes Iraqis with Marine Corps language, but the gaze of the soldiers is more complex than seeing Iraqis only as slurs. In “After Action Report,” the thought of the family of an Iraqi teenager he’s killed troubles an American soldier and his friend, who has lied and taken the credit for the incident. In “Frago,” American soldiers find two Iraqis who have been tortured by al-Qaeda-connected insurgents. The insurgents beat the men with hoses, broke their ankles with power drills and put them in front of a camera to videotape their deaths. “Except I’ve got their eyes in my head,” says one soldier. “I don’t think they wanted to be saved. After al-Qaeda sets you up in front of the video camera?”
Despite the numbing military complex they are a part of, some of the soldiers in Redeployment grope to find humanity in Iraq. They often fail, leaving the impression of a befouling American ignorance that extends far beyond the characters themselves.
In The Corpse Washer, the reader feels the occupation like an ominous cloud, with the same sense of American ignorance about Iraq. Although Jawad tries to communicate with American soldiers, he becomes angry and hopeless about the occupation. In his dreams, he fears the soldiers. The novel opens with one such dream: Jawad watches as American soldiers carry off his college sweetheart to rape her. “I try to run away, but they hold me tightly,” Antoon writes. “I scream again, but cannot hear my screams. I hear only Reem’s shrieks, the laughter and grunts of the men, the sound of the rain.”
If Antoon’s characters fear the killing machines they imagine the US military makes out of its soldiers, then Klay pens the response. Nearly every story in Redeployment depicts soldiers trying to regain their sense of what it means to be human. Here’s Klay describing the terror a soldier feels during combat: “You can’t think. You’re just an animal, doing what you’ve been trained to do. And then you go back to normal terror, and you go back to being a human, and you go back to thinking.” Jawad fights a similar emptiness. “Most hearts were so fatigued, they ran away from their bodies, leaving behind caves in which beasts sleep,” writes Antoon.
The authors also meditate on the role of the storyteller during war. They question our flimsy attempts to represent everything in war that remains beyond the scope of words. Memory becomes contested ground. As he tries to remember the explosion that disfigured him, one of Klay’s characters says, “The problem is I’m not sure what’s real memory and what’s my brain filling in details, like a guy whose heart stops and he thinks he sees a bright light.” The soldier questions his version of traumatic events, a personal questioning that can’t help but force the rest of us to wonder what we know about Iraq, if even the soldiers who lived it cannot be sure of their memories.
Near the end of The Corpse Washer, Jawad observes, “History is what people call fate. And history is random and violent, storming and uprooting everything and everyone without ever turning back.” Jawad tells us that real history, for him, is random and violent, defying comprehension. History is trauma, and the human brain is often at a loss to cope with it.
In “War Stories” two veterans, one mangled from burns, try to tell the story of the IED that hit them to a woman who wants to retell the story onstage in a play. Communication with the woman, who seems to be an activist, keeps failing. “The day before, when he’d asked me to come, I’d told him that if he gave this girl his story, it wouldn’t be his any more,” Klay writes. “Like if you take a photograph of someone, you’re stealing their soul, except this would be deeper than a picture. Your story is you.” But the disfigured veteran does tell his story, fully aware that the woman’s final representation will be inadequate.
“War Stories” isn’t the only story in Redeployment that tackles the difficulty of talking about war to “civilians.” The narrator of “Psychological Operations” also feels conflicted about telling war stories. He says, “But if I kept going and told her the story, I didn’t know if she’d understand. Or rather, I didn’t know if she’d understand it the way I did, which is what I really wanted. Not to share something, but to unload it.” Because the stories depict soldiers in all their gruff, unedited splendor, I sometimes wondered if I, a civilian, was able to understand them fully or if I was even meant to. Perhaps my own inclination toward Iraq war voyeurism had already been anticipated by an author who knew his work would be consumed by people who could never fully absorb what he’d written. As I read The Corpse Washer, I wondered the same thing.
“If death is a postman, then I receive his letters every day,” writes Antoon. “I am the one who opens carefully the bloody 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 entirely believe in. Then I wrap them carefully in white so they may reach their final reader—the grave.” The anxiety over audience is palpable here—it seems Antoon writes into an abyss, that perhaps the only audience who can truly understand all that he’s embedded in The Corpse Washer is death himself.
Although the authors’ work cautions us about the limits of perception, it’s significant that both of them still took the risk of writing down war stories. Perhaps Klay’s narrator in “War Stories” is being honest when he says, “I’m tired of telling war stories.” But as a reader it’s hard not to hope that both he and Antoon aren’t tired of writing them.