Elias Khoury is a venerable Beiruti. His latest novel in English, Yalo, appeared in two separate translations in the same year; odd given the English-speaking world’s pitiful record in translating from Arabic. In June I reviewed the British Yalo for The Independent, and have posted the short text below. I also interviewed Khoury around publication of Gate of the Sun [Bab al-Shams] in 2005, a first which appeared in The Independent too [see Archipelago Books’ resourceful author pages]. These are notably good as well as important works of fiction which give rare voice to the actual terrors of our world and times; we should have all his work, especially his critical essays, in English.
Yalo, by Elias Khoury
by Guy Mannes-Abbott
Elias Khoury’s 11th novel starts in the middle of a series of forced confessions, which spiral in unending variation until the eponymous Yalo concludes that “no one can write life”. Yalo is a thief and rapist, a security guard turned “hunter” in the forested hills above Beirut. Not only has he inverted his job, but he’s fallen in love with one of his victims. The novel begins as Shireen denounces Yalo before his interrogators, setting in motion his desperate attempts at “singing” his story.
Khoury has described how he starts each novel in the middle of the story. In the middle of his last novel, Gate of the Sun, he wrote that words and language have been circular from the first; “No matter how hard we try to break its circles, we find ourselves falling into new ones.” Yalo exemplifies this in ways that may appear dispiriting in a confessional novel but are mesmerising in their execution -as readers of Gate know.
Daniel Jalao/Habeel Abyad, aka Yalo, is a 30-year-old Assyrian and veteran of 10 years’ fighting in Lebanon’s civil war of the 1980s. As he circles back through his lives, Yalo revisits those years as a war-dog in that many-sided conflict. Finally sickening of it, he accompanies a friend to Paris after robbing the safe at their barracks, only to be left alone and begging at Montparnasse métro station. He’s rescued from destitution by a Lebanese arms dealer who needs a guard.
Yalo’s grandfather was a refugee from Ottoman massacres of Assyrians. He looms in a mystical guise throughout the novel as patriarch and priest of the Syriac Orthodox Christian Church in Beirut. When Yalo heads for Paris, his grandfather counsels that “emigration killed a man’s soul”. This is why he had “learned to read what had been erased”, he says. “We are a people whose story has been rubbed out.”
Yalo’s difficulty with words; his smattering of a “dead” Syriac tongue; his ambivalence towards Arabic and struggle to narrate, begin here. Khoury leads us towards his displacement brilliantly, but it’s only one of the big ideas to which he gives vivid life. Yalo the disaffected fugitive is part Everyman, part Lebanese Underground Man, and part the refugee as coming global citizen. Altogether he’s a brilliantly individuated character who, despite constantly shifting versions and ecstatic visions of himself, is as urgently affecting as the brutal torture techniques recreated here with scrupulous exactitude.
Yalo succeeds in capturing the equivocity of things while it also bristles and breaths with unmistakable authenticity. The key to Khoury’s writing is its rhythmic and arrhythmic repetitions; from scales that are formal and philosophical through events, memories and sentences to words themselves, which can constellate across whole pages. For every fracture and fragment there is a riffing repetition and return which accumulates force until this exasperatingly unsympathetic man steps right out of the book and you want to offer him a chair at your table.
Yalo is a highly compelling performance, presented in beautifully crafted, often lilting prose, a tribute to Khoury’s authorship in Arabic as well as to Humphrey Davies’ translation. This novel is about a corrupted individual in a corrupting time, but it speaks of and to us all.