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Bound by tragedy

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

This confessional format challenges the reader to find, each time, a new interpretation for one man's story. It is difficult to choose just one reading of this complex life. Even something as seemingly straightforward as Yalo's religious, ethnic or linguistic affiliation turns out to be muddled. Yalo's grandfather Ephraim was born a Syriac Christian but was raised by a Muslim Kurd, and eventually he returned to his Christian faith and to his ancestral language. Yalo, meanwhile, was raised as a Syriac but is only able to express himself in Arabic. These ambiguities are significant and challenge the labels upon which Lebanon's community-based politics depend. Similarly, the title of the novel is ambiguous; Yalo is not just Daniel Jal'u's nickname, it is also the name of a Palestinian village that no longer exists, having been destroyed by Israel in 1967.

Of course, "Yalo" is not the first book in which Khoury uses the civil war as backdrop. His novel "Little Mountain" (first published in 1977 and translated into English by Maia Tabet in 1989) is a loosely autobiographical account of his experiences during Lebanon's long civil war: as a child, soldier, civil servant and intellectual. It is a deeply lyrical book, full of yearning for peaceful times in Beirut and yet also retaining some nostalgia for the camaraderie that develops among soldiers in times of conflict. The narrative is disconnected, and the point of view changes several times, sometimes within a single paragraph, thus replicating the chaos of civil war.

Similarly, Khoury's novella "City Gates" (published in 1981 and translated into English by Paula Haydar in 1993) deals with the effects of the Lebanese civil war. It is a fable in which an unnamed stranger arrives at the doors of a deserted city. He manages to enter it, but he remains unable to make much sense of its labyrinthine streets or of its sole inhabitants, a group of virgins standing guard over the tomb of a king. The city is meant to be a stand-in for Beirut, and the phantasmagoric landscape serves as a warning to those who continue to fight over the land. The language is spare, sometimes unfinished ("The man sat, but the suitcase.") and occasionally deliberately ungrammatical ("Then no, not possible to, perhaps, or.").

In "Yalo," as in his previous work, Khoury relies upon the classical Arabic literary tradition and also breaks from it. Like Scheherazade in the "One Thousand and One Nights," Yalo tells a different story each day to stay alive. (The character of Khaleel Ayoub, a doctor, in "Gate of the Sun" does the same to keep a patient alive.)

And yet, Khoury's writing style departs from the typically realist modes of his peers and more closely resembles the stream of consciousness of a writer like William Faulkner. He favors repetition as a stylistic device, and the endings of his stories often circle back to their beginnings. Point of view in his novels doesn't so much change as dart from one character to another. His experimentation with narrative style can be a bit challenging, but it certainly makes for a unique perspective in Arab letters.

Khoury's 10th novel, "Yalo," is only his sixth to be published in the United States and is rendered in English by Peter Theroux, who has previously applied his prodigious skills to the novels of Alia Mamdouh, Naguib Mahfouz and Abdelrahman Munif, among others. Theroux gives us another wonderful translation, one that preserves the idiosyncrasies of Beiruti speech.

"Yalo" establishes Khoury as the sort of novelist whose name is inseparable from a city. Los Angeles has Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler, and Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk. The beautiful, resilient city of Beirut belongs to Khoury.

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