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.