The umbilical cord of loss
Translated by Jonathan Wright, The Book of Collateral Damage is the fourth novel of Iraqi novelist, poet and translator Sinan Antoon. Loosely based on his own experiences of revisiting Baghdad in 2003 to make a documentary, it is his first set in the United States, where he has lived on leaving Iraq in 1991 after the beginning of the Gulf War. It is easy to see much of Antoon’s life in the US in that of the main protagonist Nameer, who is a PhD candidate and literary translator also living in the States for over a decade. This blurring of fiction and reality is an important theme of the novel, and makes for an interesting negotiation between the reader and the author.
We are introduced to Nameer in a hotel in Baghdad in 2003, where he has travelled as a translator for an American documentary. It is his final day and, between seeing family, he encounters an enigmatic bookseller called Wadood on al-Mutanabi Street, a road famed for its second-hand booksellers and a natural draw for bibliophiles. After an initially frosty start, Wadood tells Nameer about a documentation project he’s been working on, “the project of a lifetime”. He shows him a neatly arranged file of written notes, clippings and photographs, and explains that it is “an archive of the losses from war and destruction” – a catalogue or index of “anything that can be destroyed. Minute by minute.” One minute occupies an entire folder.
Documentation in the face of destruction is at the heart of The Book of Collateral Damage, and it is this interaction between Wadood and Nameer that is the catalyst for the story. We learn that, after an initial refusal to share his work, Wadood entrusted Nameer with the first chapter of his catalogue, which he delivered to his hotel in Baghdad along with a letter promising to keep in touch. Their connection is born, and with it, the driving force of the novel, as the reader follows Nameer back to his uneasy place in the diaspora, where he begins to explore and translate Wadood’s catalogue and becomes increasingly obsessed with his own documentation.
The jarring experience of being an Iraqi “behind enemy lines” is a key theme which Antoon handles with an expert hand, peppering Nameer’s first-person perspective with microaggressions from all sides: new colleagues immediately ask him about the war in “his country”, or whether he is Shia or Sunni, while state officials refuse to grant him a driving license without a birth certificate because an “Arab like him’ tried to cross the border. Even in Iraq, acquaintances confront him about his allegiances and family questions whether he remembers the streets of his youth. The muted, repetitive tone with which Nameer reports his daily life and the frustrating interactions that dominate it portray a depression before it is ever named by the character. With few friends nearby, a string of failed relationships, and a reluctance to finish his dissertation, during the first half of the book Nameer’s character is defined by his failure to connect with or be understood by those around him, despite having made the US his home for over a decade. In one memorable moment, a student taking his Arabic language class – a condition of the job, as opposed to his academic specialism – takes him by surprise by enquiring how to say “Kneel down. Stop. Put your hands up. Move back” in Arabic. The student explains that after graduating he will be joining the army and going to Iraq or Afghanistan, “where these phrases will be essential”. Shocked, Nameer refuses to tell him the phrases or even write them down.
The structure likewise alludes to the push and pull of feeling away from home, jumping from present, to past, and between Wadood and Nameer’s writings, separated only by a fraction of indentation. Within the two men’s first-person perspectives, Antoon deftly interweaves myriad other sources, from Walter Benjamin quotes, to letters, dreams, poetry, and lists. The most striking of these intermissions are the “colloquies” which form the unusual recording style of Wadood’s catalogue. These, also first-person, tales of creation, life, and death, are scattered throughout the novel, catapulting the reader into the life of a foetus, a kashan rug, a prize racehorse, or a child talking about his friend’s stamp collection. As Wadood said in his explanation of the catalogue to Nameer in their first interaction, his focus is on “the losses that are never mentioned or seen”, the things which seemingly disappear into an abstract nothingness: the black hole of collateral damage, rarely reported or noticed by the outside world.
Over the course of the novel, the shifting of perspective intensifies, and the lines between the two men become more blurred as each excavate their pasts and their respective traumas through their writing. The novel’s success lies within this sense of confusion, and with its abstract, often cosmic, exploration of war and the mental, physical, and metaphysical destruction it wreaks. Nameer asks “Is this incessant desire to archive everything a sickness?” but, if anything, Antoon offers the documentations of Wadood and Nameer as a cure, as a means to connect a destroyed world to the living, and the living to one another.
In the most striking colloquy of all, Wadood’s catalogue describes its task of documenting the losses of each minute of the war: “It is exactly the opposite of the task of the midwife or the obstetrician who cuts the umbilical cord after the birth. I reattach the umbilical cords between things and their mothers . . . It’s tiring work that never ends.” This could be the voice of Antoon himself, whose novels continue to connect readers to his homeland.
First published in Banipal 66 Autumn/Winter 2019
Republished here with agreement