Authors and philosophers have said it for centuries. You can’t go home again and you can never step in the same river twice, and other variations on the theme. Our memories of the past are exaggerated or rose-colored or other wise faulty, and things are never the same when we visit. Most of us, however, are not dealing with the complications of a war forever altering the landscapes of our childhood as the characters of Sinan Antoon’s achingly beautiful novel, The Book of Collateral Damage (translated impeccably, with a slight British flavor, by Jonathan Wright). This book catalogs what was lost in a way I’ve never seen before in war literature, while also asking if holding on to the past is noble or pathological.
Nameer al-Baghdadi left Baghdad with this family in 1993, after the Gulf War. He’s made a career in academia, but he’s never mentally shifted his identity as an exiled Iraqi. The Book of Collateral Damage opens as Nameer returns to Baghdad after ten years, to help a pair of Californians made a documentary about life during the Iraq War and the American occupation. On his very last day before returning to America, Nameer meets Wadood Abdulkarim, a bookseller who tells Nameer that he is working on a project to document all of the things lost during the first minute of the Iraq War: books and photographs that burned, trees and structures and statues damaged by bombs. It’s clear that Wadood is deeply damaged, psychologically. He was tortured by Saddam’s agents. Before that, he was a deserter from the Iraqi Army. The only thing that seems to give him some peace is collecting information about what was lost.
Wadood gives Nameer a portion of his colloquy (a conversation, but here used to describe Wadood’s narratives in the voice of lost and destroyed things) to take back to America. There are a lot of verbs I could use to describe what those pages do to Nameer. If you asked Nameer, he might say that the pages enchant, fascinate, and engage him. If you ask his friends, they might say that Wadood’s Quixotic literary effort has infected Nameer. And I think if you ask Mariah, Nameer’s girlfriend, she might say that Nameer is haunted by Wadood’s pages because it reminds him of all he has lost and is still losing as Iraq fell further into violence and destruction.
The Book of Collateral Damage is written in alternating passages by Nameer and Wadood. Nameer’s sections reveal a life that appears to be progressing, but is fundamentally stuck. Wadood’s sections are sometimes poignant scenes of the last moments of trees, books, etc., and sometimes incoherent cries for help. I loved the layers and layers of nuance in this book and in Nameer and Wadood’s journeys between the past, the present, and possible futures. What can a person hold on to from the past? What has to be let go? Is it possible to strike a balance between memory and growth? There are no easy answers in this book.
I strongly recommend this book for readers who want elegant, evocative, thoughtful prose, as well as readers who are looking for something original in war literature and readers who love realistic psychological depth. The Book of Collateral Damage is as close to perfect as I’ve ever read.