In Yalo, published in Arabic in 2002, Elias Khoury combs the world of an imprisoned rapist during the violent forced confession of his crimes and of “the story of his life.” Yalo is a young man from Beirut’s Syriac Quarter who left the area as a teenager when the civil war escalated in 1976. He fought, then emigrated to France, where eventually, holding a Kalashnikov, he attacked lovers in parked cars at night. He returned to Lebanon and continued robbing and raping. The novel opens as he is being tortured, and this scene is the core around which Khoury builds a splintering narrative structure of imagination, memory, brutality, speculation, and delusion. But Yalo addresses not just the life “story” but the lived life: “Yalo’s story, sir, has a name—war.”
A Lebanese icon of international letters and activism, a novelist, playwright, and essayist, Khoury has experienced many of Beirut’s wartime milestones since the ’50s, and he joined the fighting in 1975. But soon after, realizing that Lebanon had so few written records that, in effect, the nation had erased its history, he looked beyond military resistance. He wanted to write, to materialize, as it were, a history. He took this further by separating literature and politics and conceiving of literature as a militant act. In 1993, he stated in the Beirut Review that “literature cannot be reduced to politics: I went through the war, and could not avoid writing about it. But literature is about rethinking everything, including politics; it is not mainly about politics.”
Yalo opens with the sentence “Yalo did not understand what was happening,” and the phrase did not understand is much repeated. This leitmotif expresses Khoury’s desire to represent without “understanding” what is represented and what has to ground our reading. The novel begins in the third person and slips into the first with the confession (under the name “Yalo, Daniel Jal’u”), which appears in the middle of the book. After this, the authoritative, autobiographical voice of Yalo takes over. Following a short official judicial summary of his crime and punishment, the novel closes with the last thoughts of the sentenced “I” who wishes to write his story again. Each section covers elements of Yalo’s childhood with his mother and grandparents, their life in Beirut, and his schooling, sexual awakening, love, soldiering, crimes in France and later in Lebanon, daily prison life, and torture, graphically relayed (he’s tied, naked, in a sack with a vicious cat). But the novel is also fraught with comments on writing’s failure. Yalo is a “young man trying to read in the whiteness of the paper his story, which he did not know how to tell, his language, which he did not know how to write, and his memory, which he did not know how to provide with a voice.”
This style is typical of Khoury’s novels, with a shifting structure, moving abruptly between present and past and between first and third persons, but it uses an anchoring strategy. Yalo is replete with vivid descriptions and short, you-are-there subject-verb conjunctions: “he rolled,” “he stood,” “he saw,” “his feet failed.” The immediacy of the combinations fixes in place the otherwise-swift stream of consciousness. This is a political gesture: to focus us on the living moment. Khoury also holds our attention through a persistent, subtly metonymic emphasis on the body as a manifestation of culture, world, person, and text. Yalo’s grandfather reforms culture when he tells him, “The true baptism, my boy, is the baptism of tears,” basing spiritual transcendence on fleshly feeling. Torture is reformed into a synecdoche when Yalo’s sack (in which he is tormented) becomes a “war sack.” And the war’s meaning is reformed into its inexpressibility as “a war that never lied because it never spoke.” All of this is juxtaposed against a refrain: We cannot say what cannot be said. “I want to write, but I am lost,” says Yalo. But what endures is the being. The being is the be-all and end-all in Yalo—the tortured body, its uncomprehending mind, and its desire to tell remain the omphalos of all the voices, lies, tales, and untranslatable realities.
Though Khoury’s novels are not literally autobiographical, their intense interiority forces the reader to feel something beyond the story. Yalo begins, as much of his fiction does, with an urgent voice. The theme of storytelling reverberates (with echoes of Scheherazade, and even the Ancient Mariner). Characters tell the story, and readers are forced to hear. Khoury’s work has parallels with Western writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Arab writers such as Abdelrahman Munif. It can also be approached through the Arab autobiographical tradition (rooted both in the Koran and in the conversational Middle Eastern tall tale) and through translation itself. Arabic is a sensual language, with complex meanings within a single word, but in English its sentences can appear plain, even bland. It’s impossible to know what has been lost and what was intended, but Peter Theroux, who has translated novels by Munif and by Hassan Daoud, makes Yalo a persuasive read. He copes well with lines as demanding as “the women of the war made him forget the taste of that kiss until Madame Randa came along and randified his lips.”
The book attempts to open out the terrifying, confused, thuggish, long Beirut war and the diaspora it gave rise to. But Khoury sets up his novel not only to embody that task but to suggest that it’s nearly impossible. Yalo underscores this when he tells the reader, “How can I describe to you what happened to Yalo[?] . . . The truth, sir, the truth that only God knows, is that my memory is distorted and I don’t know.”
Drake Stutesman is a novelist and the editor of Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media.