The Book of Collateral Damage by Sinan Antoon

By Logan

Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright.
303 Pages.
Begun 05/10/2019. Finished 05/12/2019

Image result for antoon the book of collateral damage

It has been a long time since I read a literary novel. Unless I forget something Tori has gotten me to read, this is the first since my senior AP English Literature class in highschool. I always enjoyed literary novels as a child and teenager, despite my first extended times of reading being spent on science fiction. Somewhere very early into college, though, my reading habits became focused on nonfiction and genre fiction, as my prior entries on this site demonstrate. Tori and I went to a bookstore at the start of this weekend, however, with the intention of buying two books each. It was part of our way of continuing to celebrate our anniversary, which is today. We read the rest of the evening and through yesterday together. I chose to buy this book for a number of reasons. It felt right that I should read a literary novel on our anniversary, because Tori dances in the world of beautiful prose written about things that somehow transform mundane things into art. It also has a beautiful dust cover, which immediately caught my eye because of my years of painfully trying to learn Arabic. The fact that it was a novel by an Iraqi author originally written in Arabic and translated also piqued my interest.

I bother to include this prelude not just because I want the world to know that it’s our anniversary today.  The Book of Collateral Damage is a novel about moments, articulated instances where memory gives shape to something very real and tangible.  This gives the book its form and the ground of its philosophical explorations. The moments that the book are chiefly concerned with are those of tragedy and formation.

Nameer, the book’s protagonist, is an Iraqi-born immigrant to the United States who, after his PhD work at Harvard, begins his academic career in Arabic Literature in 2003 in the wake of the beginning of the Iraq War.  During a brief return to assist a documentary of the war consequences with translation, he meets an eccentric bookseller who is attempting to write an index of all of the casualties of the first minute of the Iraq War, an expansive project that mingles robust research with imagination.  The two become friends and begin communicating.

At the intersection of Wadood’s mournful writing project and the American unease surrounding the Iraq War, is Nameer’s restless melancholy, which pushes him to explore New York City as he finds himself increasingly drawn into his own memories, even as he becomes obsessed with Wadood’s own project of reconnecting the world to its past.  Nameer’s narration of his own day-to-day life becomes interspersed and mingled with entries from Wadood’s index, memories from his own past, their letters back and forth, and selected quotations about time, memory, and our relation to the past from Walter Benjamin.

What results is an opportunity to feel the horror of war, not from the perspective of the frantic soldier or the horrified civilian, but instead from the perspective of the memories which are forced into their resolution by an unknown terror.  Ancient tablets, prison-made rugs, pianists, and birds all have their moments and memories resurrected at the same time that Nameer is finding his own memories of an estranged father, more distant past life in Iraq, school-aged exploits, and former lovers all asserting themselves on his day-to-day experience.  The reader is free to see two men attempt, with incredibly varying degrees of success, to make sense of their own past and incorporate the men they’ve become as a result into their present realities in order to keep walking forward.

The poetry of Wright’s translation of Antoon’s ideas are at times breathtaking, and I was regularly moved to real sadness at Antoon’s way of crafting the abrupt endings of shattered lives.  The ending is a remarkable and clever crystallization of what had come before that left me smiling but very sad. There are occasional moments when the past scenes become crude, but these are brief and only serve as articulations of the curiosities and confusions that guide us as we moved from our past selves into being who we are today.

One potential weakness of the book is its dialog.  For the first two thirds of the book, nothing ever broke my immersion.  Later, however, when Nameer begins having long conversations with non-Arabs, my eyes kept stumbling.  I realized that the dialog written between Nameer and others from Iraq sounded like the English spoken to me by my Arab friends in general and my Iraqi acquaintances more specifically.  There’s a brevity and forcefulness in grammatical construction, mingled with what sounds to my American ears like intentional ambiguity, which feels natural when spoken by Arabs that feels less natural when put in the lips of a Black woman raised in New York or a white man from Chicago.  It took me some dozen pages to decide how big of a problem the dialog was before I decided that it was no problem at all. The narration is written in Nameer’s voice, and so too is the dialog that he reports to the reader. With this idea in mind, that these were his reports of what was being said, I coasted through and deeply enjoyed Nammer’s interactions with others as they guided him towards coping with his depression.

I would suggest that anyone interested in memory, time, Arab culture, language, the Iraq War, PTSD, or the pressures of an academic career read this novel.  I found it so delightful that I now plan to return to literary novels a few times this summer. I haven’t very often read 300 pages in less than 48 hours, but the gravitas of Antoon’s prose and arrangement will pull you in for a ride. The book was published just this month, and while I write this, it appears there aren’t many reviews online yet, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

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