Reading the World 2008: Yalo by Elias Khoury
This is the fifteenth Reading the World 2008 title we’re covering. Write-ups of the other titles can be found here. And information about the Reading the World program—a special collaboration between publishers and independent booksellers to promote literature in translation throughout the month of June—is available at the official RTW website. There’s also a podcast discussing RTW available from World Books.
Although a couple of Elias Khoury’s other books were published in English a number of years ago, it was Archipelago’s edition of Gate of the Sun that really brought him to the attention of American readers. Frequently compared to One Thousand and One Nights, Gate of the Sun is a sprawling, epic novel. (And is now available in paperback from Picador.)
Yalo, on the other hand, is a different sort of book. From Jeff Waxman’s review:
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.
Even better than this positive review is the opening of the book itself:
Yalo did not understand what was happening.
The young man stood before the interrogator and closed his eyes. He always closed his eyes when he faced danger, when he was along, and when his mother . . . On that day too, the morning of Thursday, December 22, 1993, he closed his eyes involuntarily.
Yalo did not understand why everything was white.
He saw the white interrogator, sitting behind a white table, the sun refracting on the glass window behind him, and his faced bathed in reflected light. All Yalo saw were hallos of light and a woman walking through the city streets tripping on her shadow.
Yalo closed his eyes for a moment, or so he thought. This young man with his knitted eyebrows and long tan face, his slender height, closed his eyes for a moment before reopening them. But here, in the Jounieh police station, he closed his eyes and saw crossed lines around two lips that moved as if whispering. He looked at his handcuffed wrists and felt that the sun that obscured the face of the interrogator struck him in the eyes, so he closed them.
The young man stood before the interrogator at ten o’clock that cold morning and saw the sun refracted on the window, shining on the white head of the man whose mouth opened with questions. Yalo closed his eyes.
Yalo did not understand what the interrogator was shouting about.
There’s also an interview conducted by Bill Marx with Elias Khoury on the PRI’s World Books webpage.