A Chronicle of the Death of a Civilization

Rohit Chopra: Conventional wisdom has it that the past can help us understand the present better. The present, as described in Antoon’s novel, might perhaps help us more effectively grasp the complexities of the colonial pasts of the world, the reach and scope of the devastation caused by colonialism, and the process of what one character in The Corpse Washer describes as the “erasure” of a society (85). An entire industrial complex of forgetting and apology has emerged around those colonial pasts and Iraq’s present, refusing to acknowledge the violence of colonialism and the moral responsibility of colonizers toward those whose lives they have uprooted. For the last decade, from the date of the invasion of Iraq till the present, this surreal performance of amnesia and abdication of ethical responsibility has repeated itself endlessly in American (and to an extent, global) media, politics, and policy discussions. These conversations have relentlessly centered on the motives and interests of Americans, the anguish that Americans experienced at having had to go to war, the dramatic, if feeble, mea culpas of the New York Times and others at having been led to war over a lie, the heroism of US troops in Iraq, and the good intentions of Americans to help their fellow Iraqi humans. As only a great work of art can, Antoon’s novel, speaking truth to power, provides a counter-narrative by making the Iraqis the focus of this story and by drawing attention to the immense suffering unnecessarily wrought upon a people. Through the quiet, disconcerting, power of great fiction, The Corpse Washer refuses to let us forget the claims of Iraq’s innumerable unwashed corpses on our collective human conscience. More here.