The Embalmer by Anne-Renée Caillé, tr. Rhonda Mullins

Title: The Embalmer
Author: Anne-Renée Caillé
Translator:  Rhonda Mullins
Publisher: Coach House Books, Toronto (2018)
ISBN:  978 1 55243 780

We’re all going to die. And while nobody wants to dwell on the state of their own mortality, we’re perfectly happy consuming stories, both on screen and page, involving the deaths of strangers.  Especially if a crime is involved. (We do love our crime. I’ve lost count of the number of murder-of- the-week series in my Netflix queue, true-crime podcasts I’m listening to, and in England, sales of crime fiction have surpassed that of general and literary fiction for the first time.)

But The Embalmer is not a crime novel, though it does feature the occasional victim. Written in the first person, a nameless narrator conducts a series of interviews with her father about his work. He was a mortician — an embalmer. In short vignettes, he describes working with the dead. And she, in turn, describes him. They meet at a diner. The premise is that simple. Except when it’s not. Anne-Renée Caillé manages to convey a great deal with only a few lines of text.

The mother is in the lab, asks for the skates. They are still on his feet, the request is disturbing, then he tells himself she has some ten children, after all.

He unlaces the first skate and pulls gently, but the foot comes off.

In the skate a foot — the mother doesn’t want it anymore, she lets it go.

Parent-child relationships are complicated. The embalmer/father is cautious, trying to protect his daughter (and himself) while still honoring her request and answering her questions. His daughter carefully watches his mannerisms and describes to the reader what she observes. “He thinks and adds…”, “Clearly he saved this for last, put it off —  uncomfortable with the stories he tells me two…”, “He moves quickly through the short list in front of him, handwritten, folded, unfolded, refolded, folded, refolded, higgledy-piggledy.” There is love, but also a distance maintained, in their interactions. Though they are only the briefest of sketches on the page, no names or physical descriptions are provided, these two characters gradually solidify in our imaginations. We’ve all been to diners. They could be sitting in the next booth.

If you’ve read Gabrielle Wittkop (The Necrophiliac and Murder Most Serene ) then this subject matter is familiar. A shared fascination with death. But while both writers lay out a veritable smorgasbord of death and decomposition, they are very different in approach and intent. Whereas Wittkop’s work is gothic and visceral, almost cloyingly so, Caillé takes a more practical and moderate approach. She is more respectful. While Wittkop’s narrators are gleeful and gossipy, the embalmer is reticent. He summarizes. The rare details volunteered are unembellished.

Morbid fascination. Macabre. Gallows humor. Black comedy. Horror. We want to look, but only when it’s our choice. When no one we care about is involved. When we have the ability to walk away emotionally unscathed. My sister, who has never lived more than fifteen minutes from my parents, jokes that when they die she will have their bodies stuffed and sit them at her kitchen table. “Dad’s forehead is looking a little dusty, get the Swiffer.” We all laugh until she starts to tear up and leaves the room. This has happened more than once. Our parents, though in their seventies, are in amazingly good health. Our father is retired. He drives a shuttle bus on the campus at the local college because he hates sitting at home. Our mother watches my nieces during the week with more energy and patience than anyone else in the family can muster. My point is, neither is teetering on the brink of the grave. And still, the idea of them not being there is terrifying.

Eventually, the stories told across the table, between father and daughter, become more personal. Caillé writes with emotional vulnerability and a complete lack of cynicism, and yet she still manages to insert a twist which surprises and changes her reader’s experience of the book.

There are dozens of novels written by edgy, young writers. They all seem to be short, with unusual formatting, and truncated chapters. They all seem to be published by small, indie presses. Though no one else has that beautiful, textured, Coach House paper. But The Embalmer stands out. It’s worth your time… and not because of the paper. Anne-Renée Caillé walks you to the edge of a cliff and makes you look down. The ending of her book is abrupt, unexpected, and initially, that bothered me. I thought it was a flaw. But it has lingered with me for weeks now. Regardless of whether I wanted it to or not.

The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon, translated from Arabic by the author

Man’s reaction to his own mortality is a topic that’s been showing up on my personal radar quite a bit lately. Zadie Smith’s recent essay Man vs. Corpse (The New York Review of Books, December 5, 2014); Drew Gilpin Faust’s National Book Award winning This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (which, admittedly, has been sitting on my bookshelf for some time) and Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer – a novel I finished weeks ago but have had difficulty articulating my opinions on – have me considering how war and death shapes a generation in both large and small ways. Faust opens her book with the sentence “Mortality defines the human condition.” She continues…

‘ “We all have our dead – we all have our Graves,” a Confederate Episcopal bishop observed in an 1862 sermon. Every era, he explained, must confront “like miseries”; every age must search for “like consolation.” Yet death has its discontinuities as well. Men and women approach death in ways shaped by history, by culture, by conditions that vary over time and across space. Even though “we all have our dead,” and even though we all die, we do so differently from generation to generation and from place to place.’

This Republic of Suffering specifically discusses how the huge number of casualties during the American Civil War – 620,000 killed – on both sides of the battlefield changed how the dead were prepared and mourned in this country. The expediency of identifying the remains, returning them to their families and allowing those left behind the opportunity to find closure (to use a modern term) took precedence over the traditional religious rituals. “Civil War death narrowed theological and denominational differences. The shared crisis of battle yielded a common effort to make the notion of a Good Death available to all.” Dying in the U.S. became a much more secular business, and one could argue that it remains so to this day.

In the Muslim world this does not seem to be the case, but Faust’s words concerning how “men and women approach death” remain equally applicable. There’s a moment in The Corpse Washer when the Shiite protagonist asks his father why they wash the dead.

… He said that every dead person will meet with the angels and the people of the afterlife and God Almighty and therefore must be pure and clean. Decomposition must not show on the body, and its odor should be made pleasant. It should be covered so that the hearts of the living be not hardened. I also asked him about the differences between us and the Sunnis in washing. He said they were very minor indeed. Certain details involving the mention of imams and the writing of supplications on the shroud, but nothing major. He said that Christians and Jews may also wash a Muslim if there are no Muslims at hand. The important thing, he added, was to be possessed of noble intentions.

The passage – which I found to be incredibly beautiful in its simplicity – goes on to explain the details of the ritual:  who is allowed to wash who and what to do when there is no water available to wash, or herbs to dress, the body.  Jawad, the young man who asks his father that important question (important to him and important to readers) is the youngest son from a family of mghassilchi – corpse washers in Baghdad.  His beloved elder brother, Ammoury, is a doctor who becomes a soldier in the first Gulf War. Jawad, showing no interest in medicine or engineering, is the son chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps. He spends his Summers apprenticed at the mghaysil, the washhouse, where he takes copious notes on how his father prepares the bodies. Eventually the notes are replaced by drawings and against his parent’s wishes, with only Ammoury’s support, he enrolls in art school – in effect turning his back on the family profession. But fate has different plans for Jawad. The first Gulf War, his brother’s death and their father’s subsequent embitterment shape his future in ways he never thought to anticipate. The art market dries up and Iraq is invaded a second time. His father dies, leaving Jawad responsible for the support of his mother.  Circumstances leave him with no option but to return to washing bodies in his father’ mghaysil.

Jawad narrates his experiences in the first person, from the position of a man reflecting on his life up until the present.  The prose is lovely. Simple, straight-forward, but capable of raw poetic flourishes – as when Jawad describes one of his many nightmares or compares death to a postman, crying out to his dead father that the letters are piling up (his anguish palpable).  Sinan Antoon translated his own novel from Arabic, and perhaps this explains the  intense intimacy that he establishes between Jawad and the reader.  Events feel immediate. We share in Jawad’s nightmares.  We act as witnesses to the volume and variety of carnage produced by war.  We better understand the subtleties of the political situation and their effects on our protagonist’s – and Iraq’s – prospects when we experience them through the eyes of the main character.

The next day the electricity was back on long enough to see on the TV the official announcement of the formation of the governing council under the aegis of Paul Bremer.  The council was a hodgepodge of names supposedly representing the spectrum of Iraqi society, but we had never heard of most of them.  What they had in common was that each name was preceded by its sect:  Sunni, Shia, Christian… We were not accustomed to such a thing.  My uncle was furious when he saw the secretary general of the Iraqi Communist Part sitting with the other members.  He’d heard at the headquarters that the party had polled its cadres and that they’d voted to be part of the council, but he still couldn’t believe his eyes.

He waved his hand and said, “Look at him, for God’s sake.  They put him there as a Shiite, and not because he represents an ideological trend or a party with its own history of political struggle…”

Antoon, in describing the course of Jawad’s life, has built a tragedy of Greek proportions. Again and again Jawad is forced back into that stone building he has spent his lifetime trying to escape. He’s plagued by terrible nightmares. Unable (or unwilling?) to marry, he is left alone. It’s hard not to see Jawad and the destruction of his dreams as representative of a generation of young Iraqi men. The women of the country leave or are sent away – including Jawad’s mother – to safety.  Single, particularly young, males are not allowed through the border crossings.  Antoon chose as his theme all the things war, and occupation, rip away:  lives, futures, choices, freedom.

So we can perhaps forgive Jawad when he fails to recognize that hope resides in the mghaysil.  If only because it endures.  As Iraq collapses into sectarian violence a good samaritan, a fellow Shiite, requests that Jawad wash the bodies of Sunnis left rotting in the street.  The samaritan delivers them to the washhouse and then arranges for them to be buried after Jawad prepares the bodies.  Whereas the process of preparing the dead was ritualistic, spiritual – beautiful even – in his father’s time, during the second Gulf war and its aftermath the bodies come too quickly. “The Angel of Death is working overtime as if hoping for a promotion, perhaps to become a god”.  And, still, an exhausted Jawad attempts to perform his duties with the same care his father did.  Though it pains him, though he gives every appearance to succumbing to despair, he continues to wash the dead with noble intentions.

The Corpse Washer is not an optimistic book, but then Antoon has chosen that defining characteristic of humanity – “we all have our dead” – as the bridge between his readers and subject.  He relies on this shared condition to build empathy.  Not the happiest of topics, admittedly, but a universal one (and probably the reason why the novel has done well with Western readers despite that not being the audience it was originally intended for).  While it seems unlikely at the end of the novel that things will work out for Jawad, his future is still left somewhat open-ended.  Something I appreciated.  The glass if far from half full, but we can choose to believe that Jawad will endure his “like miseries” and find his “like consolation”.  The desire for Grace, Antoon seems to understand, is also universal.

Publisher:  Yale University Press, New Haven & London (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 300 19060 1

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Cría Cuervos (1976) – film directed by Carlos Saura *BEWARE! some spoilers!*

The first group scheduled event for Spanish Language Lit Month is to post on the film Cría Cuervos*.  This is an off-kilter and beautiful film starring an adolescent Ana Torrent.  The title translates as Raise Ravens, which refers to a Spanish proverb – “Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos.” (Raise ravens, and they’ll pluck out your eyes).  Set in Madrid, during the final days of Franco’s Spain, it tells the story of one dysfunctional family from the perspective of the middle daughter, Ana.

The film opens with Ana finding her father’s dead body in bed, as his lover flees the house.  Her mother has only recently died of cancer – after suffering both physically from the disease and emotionally due to her husband’s infidelities.  Ana blames her father, played by Héctor Alterio, for her mother’s pain and has mixed a powder she believes is poison into his milk.  Now orphaned, an aunt & grandmother arrive to look after Ana & her two sisters.  The earthy housekeeper, who acted as nurse to Ana’s mother, completes the household.

Cría Cuervos is billed as a “psychological drama”.  In the 70’s that must mean minimal dialogue; an indordinate amount of time spent focused on the Torrent’s huge, haunting eyes and abrupt switches mid-scene between reality and Ana’s memories.  Snarkiness aside, those are kinda’ the things I loved about it.  The main plot line is deceptively simple. The girls have no real concept of what death is.  But Saura brilliantly shows how they have absorbed and processed the events taking place around them.  In one scene they dress up and amidst much giggling, re-enact a scene they must have witnessed of their parents fighting.  In another Ana offers to assist her disabled grandmother die by giving her some of the same “poison” she gave to her father.   In a final scene the eldest daughter sums up the feelings of uncertainty, fear and confusion all three are experiencing when she tells Ana of a nightmare from the previous night as casually as if it had no relationship to her real life.

More complicated is what the director is attempting to say about Franco’s regime and its legacy to the people of Spain.  Ana’s father, we learn, fought beside the Nazis in Germany.  There is a sense of decaying luxury within the walls of the family’s Madrid home (where almost all the scenes take place).  The swimming pool is empty and neglected.  We’re told repeatedly that the house is in disarray.  There is Ana’s casual approach to death, which is partly due to her 9-year-old lack of understanding but also serves as a commentary on the atmosphere in which she was raised.  She feels no remorse or guilt, despite believing she killed her father.  And her older self, who appears sporadically throughout the film to attempt to explain the actions of the younger Ana, no longer seems to have a connection to or understanding of the psyche of the child she once was.  What will become of this post-Franco generation, is the question Carlos Saura seems to be posing, who have grown up in strange times with only their parents as examples?

Visually, Cría Cuervos is beautiful – and the remastered Criterion Collection edition I watched was vibrant and crisp.  The film’s color palette and the slight awkwardness to the actors’ performances  reminded me of a Wes Anderson film.  As did the song “¿Por qué te vas?” (Why are you leaving?) which was played repeatedly throughout.  One review I read pointed out that in the film Ana’s mother, played by Geraldine Chaplin (who also played the adult Ana), speaks Spanish with an English accent – as does the singer.  The adult Ana speaks with a “pure” Spanish accent.  The reviewer put forward that the reason Ana repeatedly plays the record is because the singer reminds her of her mother’s voice.  Which, to my mind, makes perfect sense. Cría Cuervos is full of small, subtle touches like that.

My final review? I enjoyed the film much more than I expected to (I’m not really a fan of 70’s cinema).  So much so that I’ve already added El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) – an earlier Saura/Torrent collaboration) to my Netflix queue.  It was, overall, a wonderful way to begin Spanish Language Lit Month.

*I’ve posted my review early because I’m a dope who’s never been good at reading directions.  You should definitely check out Winstonsdad’s Blog and Caravana de recuerdos this weekend for links to everyone else’s brilliant (and on time) opinions of the film.

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J. D. Salinger (1919-2010): Waiting for the Second Act

The death of an author can be a traumatic event to his (or her) readers, especially if the author was prolific.  John Updike is a good example of this. But J. D. Salinger was not John Updike. As far as his readers were concerned he’s been, practically speaking, dead to them (or more aptly, they were dead to him) since  Hapworth 16, 1924 appeared in the  June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. For close to half a century Salinger protected his privacy and work zealously.  No awards, no interviews, no biographies, films or sequels were permitted. The only access his readers were given was to the one novel and the three amazing short story collections – and in many ways that was enough.  For the obsessive there was always his uncollected works to seek out in magazine back issues and archives.  But there’s been nothing new, of any literary value, for 45 years.  With his death last week that all may be about to change.

A lot was said about Catcher in the Rye these last few days.  My personal infatuation with Salinger began with his short stories – all of which, in one way or another, deal with the Glass family.  The seven children of two retired Vaudeville performers (5 brothers and 2 sisters) are all above average in intelligence, physically attractive and unusually gifted. Seymour, the eldest, committed suicide at age 30 because (if we are to believe his brother Buddy’s version of events) he was too good for this world.  Buddy is Salinger’s alter ego, and the keeper of the family chronicle.  The remaining children:  Boo Boo (the “Tuckahoe homemaker”), Walt (the most cheerful), Waker (a priest, mentioned but never seen) , Zooey (“the blue-eyed Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the roulette table at Monte Carlo”)  & Franny (the youngest)  were all schooled in Eastern mysticism, philosophy and religion at the knees of their two elder brothers.  If Holden Caulfield was someone I could relate to in my teenage years, reading about the Glass family guided me through my 20’s and helped me discover who I wanted to become.  I can’t really explain why, other than that they were smart and good and all spoke like actors in pre-code Hollywood films.

Not everyone felt the same way.  Salinger’s New York Times obituary has a wonderful quote from Updike (taken from his 1961 review of Franny & Zooey).

Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.

Updike considers this a flaw.  And therein lay the crux of Salinger’s problem with the critics.

I was able to read Hapworth 16, 1924 by painstakingly photocopying  it from microfilm at the NY Public Library.  Stupidly, a year later I lent my copy to someone I admired and it was never returned.   (There’s a karmic lesson in that I’m sure).  But what I remember is a letter home from camp by a very young Seymour Glass written in a very adult voice.  In it he predicts his own death.  And while it rambled on a bit, and didn’t sound very much like a 7-year old boy writing to his father,  it explained a good deal.  It also hinted at some tantalizing possibilities as to what Salinger had planned for the Glass-es.

The Glass family seems to have evolved into more of a spiritual quest for Salinger than anything else – now complete with a Christ figure and assorted martyrs, prophets, apostles and priests (a whole ecclesiastical cast, in fact).  He became too close to his material, emotionally exposing himself every time he published and making many of his readers uncomfortable because of it.   Focusing on spirituality is dangerous ground for any author to walk, doubly so for one who built his literary reputation with stories set on the Upper East Side of New York City and reviewed in  the New York Times and the NYRB.   And yet, with the Glass family, Salinger was shamelessly pushing religion and morality door-to-door like a Jehovah’s Witness.  It must have seemed so unsophisticated, so gauche, so anti-everything the Algonquin Round Table had stood for.  Salinger had broken some mid-century literary establishment taboo, and as a result the critics sprang on him like hyenas on a wounded wildebeest.

Janet Malcolm’s NYRB article from June, 2001 –  Justice to J. D. Salinger – discusses this critical backlash.  I won’t bore anyone with my own attempt.  But I wanted to mention the infamous 1996 incident where  Salinger gave a small publishing house  permission to put out a limited edition of Hapworth 16, 1924.  Typically, the news Salinger was going to have a “new” release caused a minor media frenzy.  (The Washington Post recently featured  an interesting article where the publisher explains what happened).  Critics scurried over to the New Yorker’s archives to write their reviews of the story prior to the book’s release – and what they wrote was not pretty.  Some of it was downright petty.  The reviews are online, if you want to look them up.  Suffice it to say that when it was over I wasn’t the least surprised that Salinger backed out of the deal  and withdrew once again to New Hampshire.

This intensely personal connection and protectiveness towards his work and characters leads me to believe the reports that Salinger continued writing without publishing, despite the lack of proof.  Whether or not what he has written is any good – well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?  I’m fairly confident we’ll find out, regardless of whatever instructions were left.  And I’m grateful for it.  I don’t see it as a betrayal of the author’s wishes, or a situation like the recent Nabokov circus over The Original of Laura.  I’m not expecting half-finished manuscripts being passed off as novels. What Salinger left was not work he held back from publishing because he didn’t think it was good enough.  In his mind we were the parties lacking.

So I expect there will be good writing. There may also be some awful writing… and honestly, what if there is?  At the end of Franny and Zooey, Zooey tells his sister that because she came home “if you look at it a certain way, by rights you’re only entitled to the low-grade spiritual counsel we’re able to give you around here, and no more”.  He makes a good point.  Awful writing comes with the territory and, as always with Salinger, it’s ultimately subjective.  I, for one, have waited a long time to find out where he was headed after Hapworth.  At this point I’ll be happy with whatever I can get.

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