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Bound by tragedy

January 13, 2008|Laila Lalami | Laila Lalami is the author of "Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits."

Yalo

A Novel

Elias Khoury

Translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux

Archipelago Books: 318 pp., $25

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City Gates

A Novel

Elias Khoury

Translated from the Arabic by Paula Haydar

Picador: 128 pp., $13 paper

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Little Mountain

A Novel

Elias Khoury

Translated from the Arabic by Maia Tabet

Picador: 168 pp., $13 paper

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Few cities have withstood the kind of violence and carnage that Beirut has. Though destroyed by a civil war lasting 15 long years, it seemed to be on the verge of an economic and cultural renaissance in 2006 when it was bombed again during the Israeli invasion. Beirut is a city that has learned to start over, to rebuild itself on top of its ruins, but it is also a place where memories are long and myths are persistent. In his new novel, "Yalo," Elias Khoury grapples with the idea of truth and memory, what we choose to remember and what we prefer to forget. In fact, "Yalo" is composed of confessions -- whether forced or voluntary, true or laced with self-aggrandizement, redemptive for the confessor or entirely useless.

Khoury was born in Beirut's Ashrafiyyeh district (also known as "Little Mountain") at a crucial historical moment: 1948, the year that witnessed the founding of the state of Israel and the resulting dispossession that Palestinians call the Nakba ("catastrophe"). These twin events have had a profound significance for him as a novelist, playwright, journalist and literary critic. In 1967, at age 19, he visited Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, and, revolted by what he saw, he enrolled in Fatah, the largest political faction in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Three years later, in the aftermath of Black September, he left Jordan for Paris, where he finished his college education. Over a long, prolific career, Khoury has regularly written about Lebanon's troubled political life and the Palestinian question. Several of his novels and stories have dealt with the Lebanese civil war; his previous novel, "Gate of the Sun," brought him wide critical acclaim in the United States. Khoury edits Al-Mulhaq, the weekly literary supplement for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, and is global distinguished professor of Middle Eastern studies at New York University.

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.

An interrogator sits Yalo down and orders him to confess to all his crimes, but every time Yalo tells the story of his life, the interrogator interrupts him, accuses him of gaps and inconsistencies and threatens him with torture. "You know what happens to liars," he warns. The result is that Yalo has to start his confession anew, again and again. It is these successive and contradictory confessions that the novel gives us, almost without preamble. It soon becomes clear that the interrogator wants a very specific confession: one that contains not only Yalo's real crimes of theft and rape, but also crimes he has not committed, like planting bombs.

Given his actions, it's initially impossible to feel any sympathy for Yalo, but as he is forced to confess, and as we hear different versions of his life, our empathy grows. We learn how a young Christian boy, growing up in the home of his grandfather Ephraim, an ascetic Syriac priest, and his mother, Gaby, a romantically frustrated woman, became involved in Lebanon's long and bloody civil war. This war -- any war -- changes people, and its effects on Yalo are soon apparent. He is not just a soldier in one of the many sectarian factions; he is a victimizer of his countrymen and a victim of torture himself. Khoury's great talent lies in his ability to let us witness the making of a monster, but without giving us the possibility of judging him or feeling morally superior to him.

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