Yalo by Elias Khoury
Review by John Freeman
What is more damaging to a storyteller’s accuracy—time or torture? Here is the heart of Elias Khoury’s mesmerizing new novel, Yalo, in which a young man, Yalo, is arrested at the end of the Lebanese Civil War and charged with rape, robbery and collaboration. The charges against Yalo are serious in a country seeking to avenge its one-time avengers from the war. If Yalo cannot get his story straight, he faces life in prison or worse.
Parsing fact from fantasy is not going to be an easy task, for Khoury’s troubled, shell-shocked ex-solider is a man caught between worlds and languages. He also inherits a legacy of forgetting. Yalo’s Kurdish grandfather grew up in Syria, speaking the dead Aramaic language of Syriac, but emigrated to Lebanon and became a Christian priest. Yalo’s mother was abandoned by his father and spent her life obsessed with a lover who refused to divorce his wife.
This tortured family history emerges to the readers through flashbacks that spring open like escape-hatches during Yalo’s interrogation. In the book’s opening scene, Yalo sits before two court officers and Shirin, the woman he allegedly raped. As he is taunted and threatened, Yalo withdraws into his mind, where he recalls raping his Kalchnikov on the window of a parked car in which Shirin sat with another man who was not her fianceè. What happens afterward is to Yalo an act of love—in legal terms it is rape.
Or was it? Asking the reader to sympathize with a rapist is probably as bold a gambit as Nabokov’s tale about Humbert Humbert in Lolita, but Khoury goes at it in an entirely different fashion. As he did in Gate of the Sun, his powerful epic of the Palestinian Diaspora, Khoury piles one story upon the next upon the next, building a penumbra of tales that cloud a reader’s perception of what is real and what is imagined, what is told to family members orally and what has actually happened.
At the same time Yalo’s life expands concentrically before our eyes. We learn how he left school to fight in the war, lost friends, was abandoned in Paris then rescued by a rich arms dealer. As the interrogation heats up, we hear the story of his robbing and raping over and over again, and with each telling Yalo’s own faith in it erodes. “They asked you things you had already confessed to,” Yalo thinks, “and when you repeated your confessions you made mistakes, which was an unavoidable thing because you cannot tell the same story twice.”
To untangle his tale, a reader must follow Yalo into a vortex of memory and self-deceit, which Khoury beautifully portrays. It is a maze paved with metaphors—Yalo thinks of himself as a hawk, he refers to his stomach as a graveyard, his mouth a tomb—that cluster and burst only to be replaced and then conflated with one another.
Occasionally, moment to moment this style can feel too hotly exuberant, a stew of themes and images, but when you put the book down or take a break from it, the effect is purposeful. The cultural guilt from which Yalo proceeds—his grandfather’s trinity of betrayals of his original culture, religion and language—melds with Yalo’s interrogation torture. In his mind, Yalo is not just being punished for what he did, but whom and what he is—or isn’t.
However you feel about crime and punishment, Yalo will make for difficult read. In one horrific scene, Yalo is stripped of his clothes and dropped into a sack with a wild animal and then beaten, so that the beast begins to eat and scratch and bite at his sex organs. In another awful scene, he is forced to sit upon a broken bottle and write his confession out by hand.
One of the great weaknesses of this novel, however, is that while Khoury portrays Yalo’s torture in realistic terms, he does not step outside his head to portray his crimes. We are, therefore, trapped inside Yalo’s history and his mind. Perhaps that is where Khoury wanted us to be—suffocated by the past, swirling around in a sea of recrimination and rationalization, cut off from Yalo’s effect on others. And so it is through such a blinkered perspective that war crimes are committed.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.
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