Elias Khoury’s new novel, Yalo—out earlier this month from Archipelago—is a deep examination of truth and memory set against the gritty backdrop of post-war Lebanon. The book’s premise appears to be simple: in the first pages, it becomes apparent that the title character has been arrested for rape. Rape is a simple crime, with simple motives. In this story, however, nothing is as simple as it first appears. Yalo’s greatest crime may not be rape, Yalo may not be guilty, and Yalo may no longer even be Yalo.
In an overtly political framing, Khoury not only delves into his usual themes of identity and dislocation, but he condemns the brutal Lebanese justice system and exposes the international preference for tortured convenience over truth. The scene in which Yalo is forced to stand waist deep in a burlap sack with an angry cat chewing his genitals. will haunt me for as long as memory. Yalo is a political novel, but not merely that. It is philosophical and so much more. It’s almost too much.
Necessarily thicker than most of Khoury’s works, Yalo bears more scrutiny and re-readings than his other novels and in this literary masterpiece, translator Peter Theroux has achieved something exceptional. More than anything else, it is about the conflicts of identity and language in a region rife with upheaval and refugees. From his grandfather, Yalo inherited a complex culture, a legacy of statelessness found in the blending of Kurdish Islam and Lebanese Christianity. This blending of cultures includes an array of languages—Arabic, Syriac, Kurdish—all of which Theroux manages to convey without artifice and in impressive English. All of the alienation of tongues since the Tower of Babel is borne through startlingly clear prose. Yalo’s total estrangement may be the most successful of Khoury’s evocations and it is a constant theme in Yalo’s life. He is a haunted man and a man trapped in a crisis of intangible memory and identity. It’s more than the story of Yalo’s arrest, it’s more than the story of his imprisonment or his rapes and thefts. It’s the story of the entrapment of every character, from his lovesick mother to his grandfather the cohno, the priest. They are trapped as we are trapped—trapped in consciousness, trapped by mortality, trapped in a world that is not and cannot be objective.
Though part of an Arabic literary tradition that includes Naguib Mahfouz and Abdul Rahman Munif, the novel (in general) and this novel, are deeply Western. Influences of Western writers like Kafka, Beckett, and Nabokov are felt in the inhumanity of the state, the untenability of Yalo’s position and in his forced examination of himself and his conduct. Khoury’s play with time is also Western, but hey, the world is getting smaller. This story sprawls and turns in on itself, creeping toward a distillation and then an even greater distillation—first toward a personal truth and then a rejection of the objective altogether This revisiting of events is hardly unique and many other writers have engaged in opaque games with memory and with perspective. Khoury, however, refreshes the play. No memory can be trusted in a single-person narrative in which the narrator himself is unsure, unstable, and undergoing torture. Is he a rapist? Is he a terrorist? Is he a thief? Yes, Yalo answers, but I am no longer Yalo.
Before I was halfway through the story, I was violently engaged. I filthily chewed through the last pages with stuttering eyes and trembling hands. I hardly exaggerate—great talent is rare and great realizations rarer. This novel has both. Further praise must go to Archipelago for introducing it in such a gorgeous edition; like many of their recent books, it appeared in an understated hardcover that improves immeasurably on the garish Picador paperbacks of Khoury’s works that appeared late last year. Yalo is a tremendous new book and I look forward to more Khoury/Theroux collaborations.
By Elias Khoury
Translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux
260 pgs, $25.00