City of Shards: The Novels of Elias Khoury
The fragments of the past never add up to a whole in Beirut. The city seems to communicate in images rather than in narrative, presenting a kaleidoscope of car bomb assassinations and refugee camps, Israeli warplanes and Hezbollah fighters, shards that whirl before our eyes without yielding much meaning. And these pieces are only from recent years, thrown up by a city that already holds in its subterranean layers the 1975-90 civil war, with its militias and massacres, and long before that the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and colonial occupation by the French. When a writer attempts, then, to make Beirut the source of his work, one can understand why the first principle of his aesthetic is that a fragmented city demands a fragmented novel.
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.
The novel mostly takes the form of a series of confessions ripped out of Yalo, a young Lebanese Christian man in prison for rape and robbery. Although only in his 20s, Yalo is a hardened veteran of Lebanon's civil war. He knows a lot about urban warfare but not enough about fellow fighters like Tony Atiq, who hatches the idea of stealing money from the militia barracks and escaping to France to live off the spoils. Yalo accompanies Atiq to Paris, where he is promptly deserted by his friend. "I left the hotel and became a clochard," Yalo recalls in one of his many confessions, his language wavering between the lyrical and the banal:
That's what they call homeless people there. I became a clochard, and didn't have the price of a bite of bread. That is, I became a beggar sleeping in the Métro tunnel at Montparnasse Station.
I met Monsieur Michel Salloum, may God honor him, in the Métro station. He took me to his house at 45, rue Victor Hugo, bathed me, dressed me in new clothes, and fed me. When he heard my story he offered me a job in Lebanon.
The job is that of a watchman in Salloum's villa, the accessories a Kalashnikov rifle and a flashlight. Yalo adds idiosyncratic touches to the position. He makes love to Salloum's wife when his boss is absent and hovers, in the evenings, at the edge of a nearby forest. At first, dressed in a long black coat and rubber-soled shoes, he does no more than watch lovers driving into the forest. Before long, however, Yalo has become a predator, tapping at the windows of a car with his rifle or probing its interior with his flashlight, acts he follows by robbing the men and raping the women.
The lovers Yalo interrupts are not particularly romantic figures. The men are usually well-heeled members of the Lebanese bourgeoisie out on pleasure cruises with prostitutes or troubled young women, willing to abandon their sexual partners at the slightest whiff of danger. Yalo's mistake, in this setting, is to confuse his predatory impulses with passion. After raping a young, urbane woman called Shirin, he decides he has fallen in love with her and takes to meeting her for long conversations about Lebanese food, Arabic music and Egyptian films. Yalo says he is courting her, but Shirin understandably feels she is being stalked, and it is her eventual complaint to the police that will land Yalo in prison, to be charged not only with rape and robbery but also involvement in a bombing plot supposedly orchestrated by Israel.
Although Yalo is always eager to assure his interrogators of the intense purity of his feelings about Shirin, his almost unthinking capacity to inflict violence seems clear enough. But the establishment of criminal guilt is a fitting end only for a conservative mind. For Khoury, the fact that Yalo has committed some or many of the acts credited to him is only one strand of the story, to be woven in with braids from Yalo's past that show who he was before coming into his inheritance of crime and punishment, as well as how he is remade by a Lebanese state demanding a confession.
The interrogators who question Yalo, sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs, possess no names and have few defining features. This is because one sees them from Yalo's point of view. Starved, beaten, humiliated and subject to what the interrogators call "torture parties," Yalo understands quickly enough that he must provide a story these men consider satisfactory. Of course, it becomes apparent that the investigators are not interested in verifying the truth of Yalo's confessions as much as in extracting a version of truth that suits their needs and is presented in a suitably bureaucratic language.
No matter how outrageous the methods of torture might seem--one involves a sack with a cat into which a naked Yalo is inserted, another a Coke bottle on which he is forced to sit--Khoury in some ways is working as a realist in his depiction of the police. In its critical appraisal of the violence of the modern state, Yalo is part of a long tradition of Arabic novels concerned with prison and torture, including Saudi-Iraqi novelist Abdelrahman Munif's East of the Mediterranean (1975) and Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz's Karnak Café (1974). Yet in all other respects, Khoury is not a realist: he forces readers to negotiate shifting points of view, constant revisions in the story and dizzying jumps in time, so that even as one recoils at the violence of the interrogators, one shares some of their dissatisfaction with Yalo's jumbled confessions. It is all so complicated, from Yalo's relationship with Shirin to his interaction with his family members, and so contaminated by injections of politics, history, family and religion, that there are times when our patience with Yalo runs out and we too long for a simpler, linear story.
It is never provided, unless we're willing to accept the court verdict presented near the end of the novel. Yalo's memories, meandering through the past, seem saturated with tenderness as well as violence toward Shirin. He sees himself as her savior, protecting her from other men, including her selfish, plump-thighed fiancé, Emile, and the odious Dr. Said, who carries out her abortion and sexually exploits her. But Shirin too is a savior of sorts for Yalo. She offers him the dream of another kind of life, of becoming part of a Beirut quite different from what he has known, a place of privilege and sophistication that he thinks of almost with an immigrant's yearning:
Yalo told himself in the mirror when he was shaving the next morning that he would marry Shirin; he would buy all the cuttlefish in the world and eat them with her, and live in her house. He had not said the words "her house," but when he thought about marriage and the house and the children, he saw the entrance to her building and the sycamore tree on the sidewalk opposite and imagined himself under that tree, playing ball with a blond child speaking French. He remembered his grandfather and wondered how he would speak with his grandson's son, and in what language?
The problem with such visions is that they are fantasies involving a willful denial of all other aspects of Yalo's life, including the past embodied in the figure of his grandfather. A Syriac Christian priest who names himself Abuna Ephraim, Yalo's grandfather has surrendered in ecstasy to his ancient religion, turning his back on a contemporary world that seems bereft of ritual and faith. But it is an immersion that has obliterated everything else that shaped his identity: the name given to him in childhood by a Kurdish mullah who adopted him, the distant village of Ain Ward where he grew up, his mother, his first wife and his work as a layer of tiles on Beirut construction projects. Ephraim figures in all of Yalo's recollections of his family. He is a tragic and demented patriarch who perpetually seeks a meaning beyond everyday existence but also ends up distorting the daily lives of his daughter, Gabrielle, and his grandson, Yalo, forcing his obsessions with purity and faith upon them. Ephraim interferes in the relationship between Gabrielle and the tailor Elias, and when he legally adopts Yalo, he seems to be motivated at least partly by the desire to keep the father (who could be Elias or another man) out of the picture. Even after his death, Ephraim seems to hover constantly around Yalo, in the excursions with Shirin as well as during the later torture sessions in the prison cell, where the policemen's demands for a confession from the adult Yalo echo the grandfather's insistence on confessions from the child.