White Masks by Elias Khoury (trans. Maia Tabet) Archipelago Books, $22.00, 250pp.
Elias Khoury’s White Masks charts the illusive search for narrative in the midst of the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War. Its characters weave tangential and crisscrossing narratives that invent explanations for inconclusive events and leave only one thing for them to control: the telling of their own story. Published in 1981 and set during Lebanon’s civil war, Masks takes place among the sectarian rivalries that marked the conflict, leaving the characters—be they soldiers, housewives, or civil servants—powerless, damaged, and struggling for survival. Save for one section, though, this is a novel of a neighborhood, and Khoury eschews the war for its legacy. The inconclusiveness of the war compounded by the obsessions of Khoury’s characters makes for a book that avoids sweeping explanations and reveals uncertainties of war.
White Masks is structured around an unnamed narrator, a former journalism student who, to pass the time, investigates the murder of a middle-aged civil servant, Khalil Ahmad Jaber. The victim’s death makes no sense to the narrator since the victim wasn’t a soldier, and, more importantly, his son had been killed in the war, conferring great honor on him. The narrator hints at multiple if unlikely explanations for the murder, but from the outset he warns the reader that he is suspicious of the truth he is going to find. And, worse for a writer, he doubts anyone is interested in the story.
This is no tale. And it doubtless may not pique the reader’s interest, as people these days have more important things to do than read stories or listen to tales. And they’re absolutely right. But this story really did happen.
The desire of the writer to tell the story and the witnesses to tell their own are in conflict throughout the book, and the narrator, although he only speaks for himself in the prologue and epilogue, is always present, attempting to lead the reader to the end of the narrative. He’s a kind of voyeur of pain who takes pleasure in changing the word dreadful to wonderful when he reads the newspaper. It is in the tension between the search for the victim’s killer and the witnesses that the true narrative takes place.
The wife of the victim is the first witness to tell her story, and her description is the most complete of any of the witnesses. She makes it clear that the war, especially the death of his son, unhinged her otherwise mild mannered husband. Unable to handle the grief, he slowly retreated from the world, first only avoiding work, then taking to hanging posters of his martyred son around the neighborhood. But when the party refuses to let him have more posters, he slides farther into madness, eventually refusing to bathe as he roams the streets, interested only in erasing the posters from the walls. At one point he tells a witness,
. . . it’s a huge eraser, and it doesn’t just erase what’s written on the walls, it’ll wipe everything out…all I’ll have to do is put it, like this, against the wall, and boom, the wall it self will disappear.
Although none of the witness notice it, the husband provides the strongest moral commentary on the war, with its kitschy heroism that leaves civilians in bombed out apartment buildings dependent for their income on the martyr’s stipend the party hands out. The victim is the mad man who sees the truth, not necessarily a new approach on Khoury’s part, yet is an effective technique; he suggests that even in the midst of civil war madness is dangerous.
After the victim’s wife recounts her story, Jaber recedes into the background and what has been a prominent mystery up to this point is subsumed by the lives of the other witnesses. They tell their own stories with a single-minded nature, as if they are glad to finally tell someone about their life. Although Jaber is the point of the interviews, he is seldom mentioned. For example, the architect Ali Kalakesh only knows Jaber because he slept in his stairwell; he spends most of his time talking about the murder of an old doctor and his wife by several thugs who have taken advantage of the war to steal and rob. Another witness, a one-eyed soldier in the Joint Forces (a mix of leftest parties and the PLO that formed one of the early factions in the war and which Khoury supported) describes his combat experiences and his affair with a documentary filmmaker who was more interested in making propaganda than listening to him.
While the use of the framing interview isn’t new, Khoury uses it well here. His cacophony of stories portray a society that has fallen apart and whose protectors, the militias that claim to be fighting for a new society, take of advantage of the weak. Although the mystery of Khalil Ahmad Jaber’s death languishes, the complexity of survival with its personal animosities is well-drawn.
What can’t be avoided is the politics of the novel. Written in the middle of a war that had already lasted five years, White Masks is full of characters that represent different factions within the leftist PLO coalition. Khoury doesn’t name parties or organizations, yet it is relatively clear which side he was on and, more importantly, what he thought of them. He depicts a one-armed veteran and party boss as corrupt and self serving, as if the continuing the war is his only goal. When the party boss arrives at the victim’s funeral filling the house “with gunmen and gunfire” he says,
Everybody must see the martyr’s picture—especially a martyr as unique as Khalil Ahmad Jaber. It’s not every day that a 50-year-old man is killed in such a barbaric way—God forbid! Everyone must see his picture. We’ve hung it everywhere. The walls of Beirut are plastered with his picture.
His depiction of the factions was dangerous, and as Khoury has noted, it was “considered to be very heavy criticism of what we—our leftist and Palestinian camp—were doing and I was considered against the revolution.” Given this context, one can certainly read Masks as documentary or slightly veiled criticism. Khouy, though, is too good a writer to let only politics inform his work. “I went through the war and could not avoid writing about it. But literature is about rethinking everything, including politics; it is not mainly about politics.” It is in the not only the art of his storytelling, the sometimes fractured thoughts that his skills come out, but his interest in the structure of the stories that come out of a war.
Ultimately, the story not only questions the knowability of a story—can one truly tell what happens during wartime—but questions the author’s ability to construct a story. If a story doesn’t conform to convention does it matter? The narrator in the conclusion tries to understand his inability to construct the story he wants,
I find myself completely baffled: the author feels he really doesn’t know what happened in his story and that he’s not in full possession of the facts—whereas normally, an author is supposed to know all the details of his story, especially the ending. He’s supposed to let the ending unfold gradually and slowly, and the reader can draw his own conclusions.
What the narrator has missed is in there is no story, but stories that crisscross each other and it is the points of intersection that one can know. Perhaps it isn’t the most fulfilling way of story telling, but as a description of war with its multiplicities it works quite well. The strength, however, is also a weakness and occasionally White Masks can be a bit maddening because it isn’t always clear why the witnesses are revealing themselves so readily and what it has to do with Khalil Ahmad Jaber. Once you let go of the murder story, though, White Masks reveals the complex lives and obsessions of those caught in a civil war.
Paul Doyle is a writer, teacher, and web developer based in Seattle. He writes about literature and film, especially Spanish and Arabic language literature, at By the Firelight. He was recently published in the literary journal Under Hwy 99.
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