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Book Review: Yalo by Elias Khoury

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Lebanon, particularly Beirut, was torn asunder by the civil war that raged in the country from 1975 to 1990. Both external forces and internal strife contributed to the depredation. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the war is the backdrop and more to Yalo, the most recent work of Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury to appear in the U.S.

Originally published in 2002, Yalo is the story of Daniel Yal'u, a Beirut native in his 20s repeatedly tortured while under arrest for rape and robbery. Going by the nickname that gives the book its title, he becomes almost a metaphor for Beirut as his torturers force him to write his life story. The torture and Yalo's own internal strife produce a kaleidoscopic, at times hallucinatory, tale as his life is torn asunder physically and psychologically.

Yalo, translated from the Arabic by Peter Theroux, is not for everyone. While undoubtedly accurate (and even somewhat innovative), some of the torture scenes are graphic. More important, the book is not for those who prefer a linear narrative. Yalo's recounting of his life has loops within loops and at times contradictory flashbacks that run into and merge with each other. As Yalo, who tells most of his story in the third person, puts it, "Yalo was confused as to how he should organize his memory. He was confused because things came to him all at once and the images intermingled in his head, times overlapped in his consciousness, as if he were an old man."

The rudiments of Yalo's story are straightforward. Born in 1961, Yalo is raised by his mother and his grandfather, a Christian cleric. Yalo is in his teens when the Civil War breaks out and the family is forced to move from predominantly Muslim West Beirut to predominantly Christian East Beirut. A few years later, he joins "the Lebanese Forces," most likely an Israeli-backed militia, where he serves as "a fighter" for 10 years. In 1989, he and an army buddy steal money and escape to Paris. Yalo's friend abandons him, leaving him penniless and begging in Paris subway stations, where he is unable to speak the language. A Lebanese arms dealer comes across Yalo and brings him back to Lebanon to be a bodyguard for his family near a village outside Beirut. Yalo has an affair with his rescuer's wife and then takes to robbing lovers in parked cars in the surrounding forest, occasionally raping the women. He falls in love with one of his victims, Shirin, and while it is unclear whether she also has an interest in him, she is the reason for his arrest and detention.

The torture is designed to not only obtain Yalo's confession to rape and robbery, but to force him to admit involvement in a bombing plot. To avoid further torture, Yalo is required to write the story of his life. But what he writes is often unacceptable to his captors, resulting in more torture. The torture reaches the point "felt that time was frozen, and that I was living the last moments of my life; yet that my life was long – never-ending. I wanted it to end so that the pain would be over, but it stopped ending. That is eternity."

In struggling to write his life story and avoid torture, Yalo examines the events of his life and that of his mother, the question of love and the events which led him to his present situation. The scenes are at times confusing. Did Shirin love him or was he simply stalking her? Which ruminations on who his father was are correct? Which recounting of his love affairs and his crimes are accurate? But, ultimately, the torture and the burden of coming to grips with and articulating his life become too much for Yalo.

You were wrong to ask him to write the story of his life. Yalo cannot write because he has gone to another place, where they do not write, where they have no need to write. I, Daniel, am writing, and will write everything you want about him and about me and about everyone. But Yalo, no. I want to be frank with you and say that Yalo left me and went far away. I am body and he is spirit. I suffer and he soars.

And to what conclusion does this suffering lead Daniel? "Yalo's story, sir, has a name – war."

Undoubtedly, the experiences of the Civil War, like the miasma of the prison cells and torture chambers, influence how Daniel/Yalu experiences and perceives the events of his life. Yet even that is too simplistic an answer. Yalo may well have been formed and he may seek to justify his action by the Civil War. But is the same true of Daniel? Are the events of childhood and struggles with the concept and meaning of love part of Daniel or Yalu? And how is Daniel different from Yalo? Or is he? And, ultimately, is he even capable of ever finding the answers to or in the story of his life? In fact, Khoury asks, "if I don't find the end of the story, how will I be able to write it?"

It's a question that applies equally to life, Lebanon's experience and the Middle East as a whole. As such Yalo is as much a political novel as one that explores the human psyche and our capacity for both love and violence.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.