Yalo, Elias Khoury. Archipelago Press. 320pp, $25.00.
Yalo may be read as a 320-page elaboration upon the book’s portentous first line: “Yalo did not understand what was happening.” As the book opens, the reason for Yalo’s confusion is twofold: most immediately, he is being denounced by the woman he thought he loved while a police interrogator harangues him every step of the way. This scene of purely sensory confusion soon gives way to a much more profound kind: Yalo is an extremely troubled man, and these troubles—exacerbated by the police interrogation—make it difficult for him to understand what his life has amounted to and who exactly he is.
These questions are central. Although Yalo is a book rife with torture and degradation, a book that asks us to bear witness to the real-life atrocities that are mirrored in its pages, there is nothing Yalo asks us to do more than understand its protagonist’s coming-of-age, even as, in Elias Khoury’s hands, Yalo’s development as a man is subtly but markedly inflected by the political and the moral realities of Lebanon. Khoury, a former participant in the PLO and an outspoken critic of the government in his native Lebanon, here brings in many strands of his nation’s past: the long civil war from 1975 to 1990, the sectarian strife that exacerbated it, the torture still used by Lebanese police. Yalo has both helped perpetrate these historical wrongs and been a victim of them, and his mixture of culpability and circumstance is mirrored by the morally ambiguous figure that he cuts. Few with any sense of civility would say Yalo’s crimes merit torture and a stiff prison sentence, but most readers would also agree that he does deserve some form of punishment. To his credit, the Yalo that we discover in these pages would be among them.
Yalo’s fundamental confusion as to who he is and what he deserves makes for a highly digressive, spiraling narrative, one that continually totters askew and that constantly waves its unreliability in our faces. Part of the richness of Khoury’s protagonist comes from the fact that he is given so many reasons to narrate his life unreliably. Rather than an unobservant dodderer, Yalo is very much an active, canny person. Though it’s true that on occasion Khoury resorts to the staid device of making Yalo not comprehend something that is clear to the reader, much more often Yalo’s unreliability springs from deeper wells: wish-fulfillment, the excision of childhood scars, the fragility of memory, and the general uncertainty that anyone would encounter when trying to put decades of cause and effect in order. In establishing such a broad base of reasons why we cannot trust Yalo’s narration, Khoury humanizes him; Yalo becomes a character who struggles with the same problems any of us would have when trying to fashion our own life histories.
As Yalo loosely circles around the life of its unreliable protagonist, some reasonably trustworthy details do emerge: Yalo was raised by his mother and her father, a harsh, fundamentalist preacher who threw Yalo’s true father out of the house for obscure moralistic reasons. (In a subtle bit of writing, Yalo’s continual vagueness over exactly why his father was made to leave implies the confusion that young Yalo must have felt as he tried to comprehend where his father went.) Khoury’s protagonist left this broken home as a teen to fight in the Lebanese civil war; he eventually ended up in France penniless after being double-crossed by an army buddy and was delivered from Europe by a rich Lebanese who made him a personal bodyguard to his wife. Yalo takes advantage of this position to commit adultery with the wife and to rape women and rob their boyfriends when he finds them, in contravention of Lebanon’s moral/legal codes, necking in the woods surrounding his employer’s estate.
Although the skeleton of his story is not terribly complex, Yalo is an extremely rich character, one worthy of the over three hundred pages dedicated almost solely to him. A street tough who grows excessively attached to a woman who at best patronizes him, Yalo is by turns piteous, barbarous, compassionate, ambitious, and woefully naïve. He is typified by both a childlike love of whimsy and a claustrophobia with the extremely brutal reality that he is forced to operate in. Through Yalo’s mounting sense of paranoia, Khoury bridges together Yalo’s penchant for whimsy and the brutality that often confronts him, in the process evolving a highly personal vernacular. What makes Yalo’s personal language both powerful and affecting is that we watch how he creates it, and in watching Yalo develop the language he uses to understand his own life we become privileged to the intimate workings of his mind.
Narrating in an extremely close third-person that at times feels like stream of consciousness, Khoury uses repetitious, sometimes purposely naïve descriptions of physical and mental cruelty, to eventually build a character history based on numerous semi-stable leitmotifs. Over the course of the novel these leitmotifs become a crucial part of Yalo’s ability to comprehend his life; they are like mantras or mnemonics, little units of synecdoche Yalo can call upon as necessary to fill gaps in memory and logic. As Yalo’s story and his consciousness develop through the story, the actual meanings of these leitmotifs shift and bend. Khoury’s technique can be seen in this paragraph, wherein Yalo recalls how his authoritarian grandfather, referred to as the cohno, disciplined him as a child by battering him with questions designed to force a confession:
Yalo did not know how to answer his cohno grandfather’s questions, but he closed his eyes and confessed that he had lied or stolen an apple, or not studied, or anything that came into his head. When the cohno listened to his confessions, he was transformed from a cohno who heard the sacrament of confession into a grandfather, and instead of preaching to the lad who confessed before him with bowed head and closed eyes, he would beat him with a bamboo stick.
There is much going on in this short paragraph. Most fundamentally, Khoury blends the characters of Yalo’s grandfather (the religious leader known as a cohno) and the police interrogator, both of whom harass him into false confessions and both of whom use the threat of torture to compel testimony. Moreover, because the cohno is a preacher who looks to religion to give his life meaning, in this paragraph the cohno mystifies the very prosaic idea of a son confessing to a parent with the Christian sacrament of confession (possibly even conflating it with the many Bible stories involving sons confessing to fathers). Lastly there is the bamboo stick the cohno uses to beat Yalo; late in the novel the police will use just such a stick as part of Yalo’s torture.
With the method and density seen in just this one paragraph, Khoury builds and builds Yalo’s identity with images and phrases of great symbolic weight. In this way Khoury is able to frankly discuss difficult subjects (among them war, rape, murder, torture, and possible adultery) without either turning his book into a freak show or trivializing the importance of what is under discussion. Although the effect of Yalo’s repeated regressions and overlapping images can be overwhelming—and some spillage is likely inevitable for any reading of Yalo—this too seems to have been a purposeful stylistic choice.
What is perhaps most interesting about Yalo is that despite the title character’s misdeeds, by the end of the novel he is a perfectly sympathetic character. This is partly due to Yalo’s unreliability—it’s unclear precisely how many crimes he committed and the circumstances of them. This is also due to the slow-moving, accumulative nature of the narrative: by the time we have established certain crimes beyond a reasonable doubt, we have spent so much time with Yalo that it is tough to judge him too harshly, especially when we often see him as a victim of torture. Although it is true that in many ways Yalo is a despicable protagonist, and in all cases he would be a difficult person to like, he is still not deserving of having a broken Coke bottle rammed up his anus (to name just one of the true-life practices Khoury adapts for his novel). Such harsh and degrading treatment, especially when narrated with Khoury’s nightmarish flair, makes it hard not to side with its victim.
Eventually Yalo is given paper and pen and forced to write his life story, another true-life tactic Lebanese interrogators use to wring false confessions. After repeatedly displeasing his interrogators with his increasingly dense narratives, Yalo is given the Coke-bottle torture, after which his identity fragments more radically than ever. It is here, in roughly the book’s last third, that Yalo pulls away from the political realities of Lebanon’s civil war and terrorist paranoia to focus solely on Yalo’s character. The narration finally settles into the first-person it has long been courting, and Yalo attempts to construct his identity, now serving only himself in an attempt to understand. It is in this difficult moment that Yalo assumes responsibility for his life while also stepping out from the shadow of his parents. The 31-year-old finally comes of age, and although he cannot rescue himself form the authorities (Yalo’s fate was sealed the minute the Lebanese police arrested him), by novel’s end he has nonetheless achieved a measure of victory.
Despite its formal complexity, Yalo is very much a fast-moving, approachable book, a novel that shows how multiplicities of stories and intricate metaphors can coexist in a fast-flowing narrative. It would take the skills of a cartographer, and perhaps more patience than any mapmaker has, to fully chart out the mixed strands of lies, deceptions, and misunderstandings that go into Yalo’s many stories, but even were someone to chart it all out, I think the job would be impossibly complicated by paradox and the fine gradations of interpretation. This is quite clearly for the best, as in Yalo Khoury embodies the fact that we can know a man without fully comprehending who he is.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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