Bound by tragedy
Translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux
Archipelago Books: 318 pp., $25
Translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar
Picador: 128 pp., $13 paper
Translated from the Arabic by Maia Tabet
Picador: 168 pp., $13 paper
Few cities have withstood the kind of violence and carnage that Beirut has. Though destroyed by a civil war lasting 15 long years, it seemed to be on the verge of an economic and cultural renaissance in 2006 when it was bombed again during the Israeli invasion. Beirut is a city that has learned to start over, to rebuild itself on top of its ruins, but it is also a place where memories are long and myths are persistent. In his new novel, “Yalo,” Elias Khoury grapples with the idea of truth and memory, what we choose to remember and what we prefer to forget. In fact, “Yalo” is composed of confessions -- whether forced or voluntary, true or laced with self-aggrandizement, redemptive for the confessor or entirely useless.
Khoury was born in Beirut’s Ashrafiyyeh district (also known as “Little Mountain”) at a crucial historical moment: 1948, the year that witnessed the founding of the state of Israel and the resulting dispossession that Palestinians call the Nakba (“catastrophe”). These twin events have had a profound significance for him as a novelist, playwright, journalist and literary critic. In 1967, at age 19, he visited Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, and, revolted by what he saw, he enrolled in Fatah, the largest political faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Three years later, in the aftermath of Black September, he left Jordan for Paris, where he finished his college education. Over a long, prolific career, Khoury has regularly written about Lebanon’s troubled political life and the Palestinian question. Several of his novels and stories have dealt with the Lebanese civil war; his previous novel, “Gate of the Sun,” brought him wide critical acclaim in the United States. Khoury edits Al-Mulhaq, the weekly literary supplement for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, and is global distinguished professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University.
With “Yalo,” Khoury returns to Beirut in the 1980s with a book that is a series of jagged narratives shifting in time, location and point of view. The novel gives us, like pieces of a puzzle, the story of Daniel Jal’u, nicknamed Yalo. He is a soldier who, after 10 years spent on one of the many sides of Lebanon’s sectarian civil war, gradually becomes a deserter, a thief, a vagabond in Paris, a night watchman in Beirut, a traitor to his benefactor, an arms smuggler, a voyeur and eventually a rapist. Then Yalo falls in love with the young Shirin, and that single act of affection ends in his capture; she turns him in to the police and accuses him of rape.
An interrogator sits Yalo down and orders him to confess to all his crimes, but every time Yalo tells the story of his life, the interrogator interrupts him, accuses him of gaps and inconsistencies and threatens him with torture. “You know what happens to liars,” he warns. The result is that Yalo has to start his confession anew, again and again. It is these successive and contradictory confessions that the novel gives us, almost without preamble. It soon becomes clear that the interrogator wants a very specific confession: one that contains not only Yalo’s real crimes of theft and rape, but also crimes he has not committed, like planting bombs.
Given his actions, it’s initially impossible to feel any sympathy for Yalo, but as he is forced to confess, and as we hear different versions of his life, our empathy grows. We learn how a young Christian boy, growing up in the home of his grandfather Ephraim, an ascetic Syriac priest, and his mother, Gaby, a romantically frustrated woman, became involved in Lebanon’s long and bloody civil war. This war -- any war -- changes people, and its effects on Yalo are soon apparent. He is not just a soldier in one of the many sectarian factions; he is a victimizer of his countrymen and a victim of torture himself. Khoury’s great talent lies in his ability to let us witness the making of a monster, but without giving us the possibility of judging him or feeling morally superior to him.
This confessional format challenges the reader to find, each time, a new interpretation for one man’s story. It is difficult to choose just one reading of this complex life. Even something as seemingly straightforward as Yalo’s religious, ethnic or linguistic affiliation turns out to be muddled. Yalo’s grandfather Ephraim was born a Syriac Christian but was raised by a Muslim Kurd, and eventually he returned to his Christian faith and to his ancestral language. Yalo, meanwhile, was raised as a Syriac but is only able to express himself in Arabic. These ambiguities are significant and challenge the labels upon which Lebanon’s community-based politics depend. Similarly, the title of the novel is ambiguous; Yalo is not just Daniel Jal’u’s nickname, it is also the name of a Palestinian village that no longer exists, having been destroyed by Israel in 1967.
Of course, “Yalo” is not the first book in which Khoury uses the civil war as backdrop. His novel “Little Mountain” (first published in 1977 and translated into English by Maia Tabet in 1989) is a loosely autobiographical account of his experiences during Lebanon’s long civil war: as a child, soldier, civil servant and intellectual. It is a deeply lyrical book, full of yearning for peaceful times in Beirut and yet also retaining some nostalgia for the camaraderie that develops among soldiers in times of conflict. The narrative is disconnected, and the point of view changes several times, sometimes within a single paragraph, thus replicating the chaos of civil war.
Similarly, Khoury’s novella “City Gates” (published in 1981 and translated into English by Paula Haydar in 1993) deals with the effects of the Lebanese civil war. It is a fable in which an unnamed stranger arrives at the doors of a deserted city. He manages to enter it, but he remains unable to make much sense of its labyrinthine streets or of its sole inhabitants, a group of virgins standing guard over the tomb of a king. The city is meant to be a stand-in for Beirut, and the phantasmagoric landscape serves as a warning to those who continue to fight over the land. The language is spare, sometimes unfinished (“The man sat, but the suitcase.”) and occasionally deliberately ungrammatical (“Then no, not possible to, perhaps, or.”).
In “Yalo,” as in his previous work, Khoury relies upon the classical Arabic literary tradition and also breaks from it. Like Scheherazade in the “One Thousand and One Nights,” Yalo tells a different story each day to stay alive. (The character of Khaleel Ayoub, a doctor, in “Gate of the Sun” does the same to keep a patient alive.)
And yet, Khoury’s writing style departs from the typically realist modes of his peers and more closely resembles the stream of consciousness of a writer like William Faulkner. He favors repetition as a stylistic device, and the endings of his stories often circle back to their beginnings. Point of view in his novels doesn’t so much change as dart from one character to another. His experimentation with narrative style can be a bit challenging, but it certainly makes for a unique perspective in Arab letters.
Khoury’s 10th novel, “Yalo,” is only his sixth to be published in the United States and is rendered in English by Peter Theroux, who has previously applied his prodigious skills to the novels of Alia Mamdouh, Naguib Mahfouz and Abdelrahman Munif, among others. Theroux gives us another wonderful translation, one that preserves the idiosyncrasies of Beiruti speech.
“Yalo” establishes Khoury as the sort of novelist whose name is inseparable from a city. Los Angeles has Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler, and Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk. The beautiful, resilient city of Beirut belongs to Khoury.