Yalo By Elias Khoury was discussed on Monday, February 2nd.
After his acclaimed Gate of the Sun, Khoury returns with the spellbinding confession of Beirut criminal Daniel Jal’u, aka Yalo, who is picked up by the cops for rape, robbery and suspicion of arms smuggling. Under torture and the threat of more torture, Yalo writes numerous confessions, but seems unable to grasp the whole of his life, producing instead a series of conflicting sequences and inexplicable omissions. Khoury refuses to give the reader an easy position from which to judge Yalo—either as a poor soul or a serial rapist, criminal or victim of torture—or from which to judge Lebanon’s tragic and violent fate. His novel is a dense and stunning work of art.
Brought up by his grandfather Ephraim, a half-mad Syriac priest, and his mother, Gaby, Yalo joins the army in 1979 and fights in the horrific Lebanese civil wars already under way. Deserting 10 years later, Yalo, after a series of adventures, ends up working as a guard for a rich lawyer whose villa is close to a wooded lovers lane; he progresses from voyeurism to robbing and, in some cases, rape. In so doing he meets Shirin, who will change his life—partially by turning him in.
Some of the main themes we discussed were:
- Identity and dislocation: Many of the characters struggle with a loss of self.His other “lost her face in the mirror,” his grandfather loses his identity and language, Alexi loses his physical body, and in the telling and retelling of his life’s story, Yalo loses himself.
- Narrative structure as reflection of internal turmoil. The narrative structure of Yalo contributes to the sense of alienation and uncertainty.Yalo is a novel without a seeming end (or even beginning) echoing the war itself. Its non linear storyline – the staccato structure, the quick turns from past to present or from third person to first person or from long sentences to short sentences or from interior monologue to external narrative – these are designed to frustrate readers so that they are drawn into the emotional world of someone in great conflict. In this way Khoury doesn’t want the reader to simply acknowledge the distress about which he writes but rather to inhabit that distress.
- Personal responses to Yalo as a character varied, even though all condemned his relationships with women. Khoury refuses to give the reader an easy position from which to judge Yalo—either as a poor soul or a serial rapist, criminal or victim of torture. It was not a comfortable story, but one that left readers with a new insight into a complex character (even if they did not want it! some readers stopped mid way, not wanting to have this sort of insight – this in many ways intimate interaction with a rapist)
- Condemnation of the brutal Lebanese justice system and exposes the international preference for tortured convenience over truth. One cannot help but to read this book and think about current events.
- Eating, the consumption of others, the consumption of self – from the sacraments of Mass to the body of a lover to the graveyard that is made from a man killing man, man consuming animals, …the imagery of eating and digesting are a running theme throughout the work.
- Writing as a means of escape / expression of love …and… writing / words as the very thing that will kill Yalo / the author / Yalo’s lovers. Like the cuttlefish who can escape or be cooked in his own ink, Yalo is caught in the act of writing and the words he shares with Shirin to be the very thing that traps / condemns him.Yet in the end, Yalo cannot find himself without the act of writing it down.
- Multiple versions / simultaneous paths of truth and memory. Not only is there more than one story that Yalo tells, but we must reread it to capture the different threads.Memory both sets Yalo free when he is faced with torture and his memory holds him back, unable to figure out what is happening. He is a haunted man and a man trapped in a crisis of intangible memory and identity. No memory can be trusted in a single-person narrative in which the narrator himself is unsure, unstable, and undergoing torture. Even with a conclusion (?) the layers of memory complicate the story far beyond the interrogator’s report.
- Employing a poetic rhythm and texture of words, Khoury incorporates a varied language amongst his characters, one which combines vernaculars, languages (English, Arabic, Kurdish, French, Syriac). translator Peter Theroux had amazing treatment of the text.as one reviewer put it “All of the alienation of tongues since the Tower of Babel [are] 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.” It also reflects the conflicts of identity and language in a region rife with upheaval and refugees
Further information can be found at:
- Peter Theroux on Translating Yalo from Words Without Borders: http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/?lab=RTW2008KhouryTherouxInterview
- City of Shards: The Novels of Elias Khoury By Siddhartha Deb, November 13, 2008 from the December 1, 2008 edition of The Nation: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20081201/deb/single
- Glimpses into War-torn Beirut – A review of Yalo by Laila Lalami: http://www.powells.com/review/2008_01_16.html
Elias Khoury(born 12 July 1948, Beirut) is a Lebanese novelist, playwright and critic. He has published ten novels, which have been translated into several foreign languages, as well as several works of literary criticism. He has also written three plays. He currently serves as editor of Al-Mulhaq, the weekly cultural supplement of the Lebanese daily newspaper Al-Nahar, and is a prominent public intellectual. Life and career as academic, critic and editor
Elias Khoury was born into a middle-class family in the predominantly Christian Ashrafiyye district of Beirut. In 1967, as Lebanese intellectual life was increasingly becoming polarised, with the opposition taking on a radical Arab nationalist and pro-Palestinian hue, Khoury travelled to Jordan where he visited a Palestinian refugee camp and then enlisted in Fatah, the largest resistance organisation in the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. He left Jordan in 1970 after the Palestinian guerrilla forces in the kingdom were crushed in Black September and travelled to Paris to continue his studies. There he wrote a dissertation on the 1860 civil war in Lebanon. After returning to Lebanon, he became a researcher with the Palestine Liberation Organization’s research centre in Beirut. He took part in the Lebanese civil war that broke out in 1975, and was seriously injured, temporarily losing his eyesight.
Khouri’s first major involvement on the Arab literary scene was as a member of the editorial board of the journal Mawaqif, which he joined in 1972. Other members included Adonis, Hisham Sharabi and, somewhat later, Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish. Of this group, Khoury later remarked that it was important, but marginal: “We were neither on the liberal right nor on the classical left. Intellectually speaking, we were very much linked to the Palestinian experience.”
From 1975 to 1979 he was editor of Shu’un Filastin (Palestinian affairs), collaborating with Mahmoud Darwish, and from 1981 to 1982 editorial director of Al-Karmel. From 1983 to 1990 he was editorial director of the cultural section of Al-Safir. He has been editor of Al-Mulhaq, the cultural supplement of Al-Nahar, since its reappearance after the end of the civil war.
He has taught in Columbia University, New York, in the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese University, the Lebanese American University and New York University.