We’re into the home stretch now . . . Over the next five days we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
Yalo by Elias Khoury, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux. (Lebanon, Archipelago)
In many ways, Yalo is the very definition of a “haunting novel.” For the images, the complex characters, the circular way the story is told, the reflections on torture and truth . . . It is a lasting book that will stay in reader’s minds long after they’ve finished it.
Although the novel is in no way “simple,” the plot itself is pretty straightforward. Yalo is on trial for rape. And is also suspected of being involved in a bombing plot. He’s a twenty-something-year-old veteran of the Lebanese civil war, who, following the war, absconded with some cash and a friend to Paris. His friend abandons him in France, leaving Yalo (who doesn’t speak a word of French) to wander the streets. Eventually he meets an arms dealer who proceeds to bring him back to Lebanon to serve as a guard for his house and family. And that’s where the trouble really begins.
Despite the sympathy the reader comes to feel for Yalo, he’s not necessarily a moral, upstanding person. After seeing people drive into the woods to have sex, he starts spying on them, occasionally robbing them, and once in a while raping the women. He gets involved with Shirin this way, a woman whom he claims to love, and who, depending on which version of the story you believe, has some interest in him as well.
Now on trial—thanks to the accusations of Shirin—he’s tortured in ways that are extremely disturbing, forced to write the entire story of his life, and broken, both mentally and physically.
Yalo’s story is interesting enough, but the way that it’s told in this novel is what really landed this book on the Best Translated Book of the Year fiction longlist.
Using some Faulknerian techniques, Khoury tells Yalo’s story in a looping and repetitive, subjective and uncertain, direct and poetic, fashion that is masterful and compelling. Siddhartha Deb has a nice overview of the book in his review for The Nation:
Yalo, the tenth novel by Lebanese writer Elias Khoury, is such a book. Published in Arabic in 2002 and now available in a translation by Peter Theroux, Yalo is set in 1993 and revolves around a single consciousness unable to make sense of itself or its surroundings. Its opening sentence is “Yalo did not understand what was happening,” and its closing line is “And if I don’t find the end of the story, how will I be able to write it?” In between lies a work that is both one story and several, perpetually revised under the torque of history, memory, desire, fear, understanding and loathing.
And Jeff Waxman’s review for Three Percent also points to some of the complexities of this novel:
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.
Although a few of Khoury’s books had been translated into English at the time, it was Archipelago’s publication of Gate of the Sun that really launched him into the minds of American readers. Yalo is a different sort of book (and a bit shorter), and reinforces the opinion that Khoury is one of the great contemporary Arabic writers.
Khoury was able to tour in support of this book, and at least a couple of his performances were recorded and are available online. (C’mon publishers and booksellers, this seems like an obvious thing to do . . .) Specifically, his appearance at the Seattle Public Library is very interesting. And if you’re interested in learning more about Gate of the Sun, I’d highly recommend listening to his appearance on Bookworm. And the Washington City Paper has a really nice article about Peter Theroux, whose translation is impeccable.
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.
This week we posted two new reviews, both of titles published by Archipelago. The first is a review by E.J. of The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre. (Fabre will be touring throughout the U.S. starting later this month. All the current dates can be found at Archipelago’s site.)
Jeff Waxman gives Yalo by Elias Khoury some serious praise in his review of this title, which is also just out from Archipelago. Jeff works at Seminary Co-op in Chicago, and will hopefully be a regular reviewer for us.
And speaking of which, if there are any booksellers—or other literary readers in general—interested in reviewing works in translation for us, please feel free to contact me at chad.post at rochester dot edu.
One of our favorite presses, Archipelago’s been getting a lot of good attention for a couple of their recent titles: Yalo by Elias Khoury and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute by Julio Cortazar.
Specifically, the Khoury book received a great review by Laila Lalami in this weekend’s L.A. Times:
bq, 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. [. . .]
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.
I’m a sucker for anything Faulknerian, but besides that this sounds like a really interesting book. (One that we will be reviewing in the very near future.)
Interesting article in The Guardian (one of the best papers for arts and books coverage, in my opinion) on Elias Khoury and his fears about chaos in Lebanon.
Here’s a brief description of the book:
Khoury says his aim in Gate of the Sun was to write a great love story. As Dr Khaleel, a paramedic in the makeshift Galilee hospital in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp, keeps vigil by the bedside of Yunis, a comatose Palestinian resistance fighter of his father’s generation, he tells stories from the fighter’s life, and his own, like a Sheherazade trying to stave off death. Soon after 1948, when the Lebanon-Israel border was still porous, Yunis would meet his wife Naheeleh in the cave in Galilee that gives the novel its title. Along with everyday tales of flight and dispossession, the book traces the enmeshed histories of Lebanon and Palestine, from the 1930s to the 1990s, centring on the 1982 massacres in the Sabra and Shatila camps.
Yalo, a new novel by Khoury is forthcoming from Archipelago Books. And hopefully an excerpt will be available online soon . . .
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