Sinan Antoon; Trans. Jonathan Wright

The Book of Collateral Damage by Sinan Antoon, translated by Jonathan Wright, weaves together two narrative threads, each of which illustrates different aspects of the collateral damage caused by the Iraq war and occupation.

The novel opens with Iraqi-born Nameer, a future professor at Dartmouth College, returning to Baghdad in 2003 after an absence of a decade. While in Baghdad, he visits Al-Mutannabi Street, a street famous for its book shops, where he encounters the bookseller, Wadood Abdulkarim. Wadood shares with him his manuscript in which he catalogues the unacknowledged losses caused by the most recent war.  

The first thread chronicles Nameer’s journey upon his return to America. In many ways, his journey parallels that of the author, giving it the definite feel of an autobiography. From Dartmouth College, Nameer goes to New York University as an associate professor. He accumulates images and newspaper cuttings about Iraq for a novel he plans to write but is never able to begin. He struggles with PTSD, haunted by images and the faces of people he saw during his recent trip. Events, objects, and even the smell of certain foods transport him back to his childhood in Iraq. His depression and creative paralysis lead him to a therapist who encourages him to write as a form of therapy.

Periodically interspersed throughout Nameer’s narrative are excerpts (colloquies) from Wadood’s manuscript. These are fascinating vignettes of objects, plants, and animals, most of which come alive in the first-person point of view. Included among them is a Kashan carpet that once enjoyed the patter of children’s feet. A bomb drops on the home, silencing all who have huddled together on the carpet for protection. A tree thrives in the sun, bearing fruit. It describes its agony as its limbs are cut off, its wounded trunk injected with poison to suffocate its roots. What little remains burns when ash falls from the sky. A young boy gives his friend a stamp album for safe-keeping when he and his family are deported because of their ostensible Iranian heritage. The boy grows into manhood, treasuring the stamp album and faithfully adding to the collection. One day a missile breaks through the window pane of his apartment, setting all his belongings on fire. Add to this list a race-horse, a camera film, a wall, a cassette-tape, and many others. Each meets with a violent end.

The threads alternate between the losses catalogued in Wadood’s colloquy to Nameer’s struggle with his own internal demons as he recalls his personal past and the recent past of his country. The threads are so intertwined that the words become interchangeable the further the novel progresses. With news of Wadood’s death at the hands of a suicide bomber, Nameer decides to write his novel of collateral damage as both a tribute to honor Wadood and as a way to heal his fractured self. In part, therefore, this is a novel about an author’s struggle to write a novel that serves as a testament to the trauma of a nation.

By structuring his novel with two interlocking threads that feed off each other to accentuate the intensity of loss, Sinan Antoon has illustrated in a profoundly moving and poignant way the true cost of war. The cost should not be measured only by the loss of human life, potential, aspirations, and mental stability. It must also be measured by the devastation inflicted on the environment, on the destruction of valuable cultural artefacts, on homes that once sheltered families, on objects of aesthetic value, on spaces that hold significance, and on personal mementos wrapped in memories of better times. Each loss is felt deeply and illustrates the annihilation caused by war. All are victims of collateral damage.

Highly recommended for its powerful and sensitive evocation of the true cost of war.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review