To say that Lebanon's past is awash with blood is to say too little and too much. Lebanon and its capital, Beirut, hang from a “thread of blood,” and armed conflict is such a strong element of its past that we can be sure this river of violence will rise like an anti-Nile to inundate the streets with death once again. The people of Beirut, heirs to a timeline strung with the bloody pearls of war, are yet possessors of a defiant optimism and (at times) enjoy a democratic modus vivendi unique to the Arab world.
Elias Khoury, author of ten novels and several plays and essays and would-be guardian of Lebanese high culture, is the chronicler of these events. As the editor of the literary supplement of Beirut's daily centrist newspaper, Al-Nahar, Khoury has long been responsible for raising awareness about social issues in Lebanon and the greater Middle East, and for championing “new and good literature from Lebanon and the Arab world.” But his primary creative preoccupation has been with Lebanon's internal strife. For years, Khoury has written of the pain of Lebanon's civil wars, of the massacres and slaughter and madness, of the fighters and of those casualties caught in their way, and of the refugee camps that are no less turbulent. But he is no distant intellectual watching it all unfold from afar: in 1967, appalled by the things he had witnessed, Khoury joined Fatah, the largest resistance group in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, though he insists that he took no combative role during his years with them.
Khoury's 2002 novel, Yalo, is set shortly after the end of the civil war that ravaged Lebanon from 1975-1990. It is the story of a young Lebanese man, Daniel J'alu, called Yalo, who has been charged with rape and, under the duress of torture, writes his confessions. While we are provided with Yalo's written confessions, the bulk of the novel comes from scattered memories, narrated in a fragmented structure to the police interrogator. Yalo (insofar as he can be believed) was born of a father who fled to Sweden and a Lebanese mother. His grandfather, a Syriac priest, a cohno, lives with them also.
Born in 1961, Yalo is still a young man when war breaks out in 1975 and it is not long after that he joins in the fighting. The novel recounts a number of his exploits in the war, most memorable among them the ironical near-canonization of a Russo-Syriac soldier, Alexei, a sadistic murderer and suspected pederast. One scene shows Alexei forcing an old blindfolded man, who held at gunpoint has defecated in fear, to consume his own feces before shooting him. This is not the only such occurrence in the book. A promise to God that if “[He] gave me a son I'd eat his shit, and God answered my prayer, and I ate it,” Yalo's mother, Gaby,
“[stood] before a baby cradle...bending over, putting a finger
in the diaper, and then sucking on it...”the taste of shit was milk,
with something of my smell, because I was nursing you at my breast.
And as I uttered my vow, there was the taste of my milk in my mouth.””
This shit-eating motif points toward a consumption of the Self and a destruction of the soul.
Fleeing the war with a fellow soldier, Yalo is left stranded in Paris when his comrade leaves with their money. Yalo can't speak French but is saved from an ignoble death on the Parisian streets by Michel Salloum, a lawyer living in Lebanon, and hired to guard Salloum's family and villa. But the lawyer is thanked by Yalo sleeping with his wife and nightly acts of voyeurism, robbery, and the occasional rape in the forest that surround the villa. It is one of his rape victims, Shirin Raad, a woman with whom he carries on a relationship for several weeks after the incident, that brings the charge of rape against him. Typical of Khoury's work, this is the point at which the novel begins, and the plot moves back in forth in time.
What can survive war? If nothing does, then what is being fought for is necessarily a casualty. If you are fighting for truth, well, they say that's the first to go. Yalo's story changes with each new torture – rendered in macabre detail – and we are aware of the shifting ground upon which we stand. Yalo relates stories about his mother and her love affair with Elias al-Shami, a tailor for whom she worked, in the kind of fine, intimate detail that he could not possible have known. He even fabricates stories, such as the titanically misguided tale of his slaying his own cousin, told to impress Shirin.
““You killed her?”
This horrible naïveté is one of Yalo's defining characteristics and could be said to be the cause of his imprisonment and torture.
“Of course I did.”
“You killed your own cousin?” she asked, shocked.
“I killed her – shot her.”
“Because she wanted to marry a Kurd.”
“And that was a reason to kill her?”
“It wasn't just that. He slept with her, and she was pregnant
so I had to defend the family honour.”
“And that's how you saved your family's honour?”
“Honour is the main thing,” he said.
“Good grief – honour!” she said.
He told her the story in order to see admiration in her eyes,
but instead of admiration, he saw her little eyes fill with terror.”
““As for rape, it is true that I raped, but I did not know that
it was called rape. I thought that was what sex was – you came
upon a woman and didn't need to explain anything. That was
Khoury has long argued for a secular democratic Lebanon, and there is indeed an impious sentiment that runs through the novel, from the pathetic figure of the cohno with his bizarre seaside rituals and the ascetic dementia of his later years to the madness of Nina, the mother who canonized her Russian son, Alexei. But it is identity and its survival under the most extreme conditions that forms the heart of this novel. It is identity understood as the conception of Self, as Self opposed to Other, and the confusion, the psychic listlessness, that results from its stunted formation or mutation. A divided Self. A shattered Self. This is the consequence of war and, as Lebanese, and as legatees of a history of blood and screams, it is a national concern, and an individual concern, ab ovo.
Now, I don't mean to suggest that there is a lurking, congenital schizophrenia – understood in a strict psychological sense – coiled and dormant in the DNA of newborn Lebanese. It is something more than that, something externally very real and seen in the eczema of refugee camps and nationwide scars, yet internally no less present, though amorphous and elusive.
It is from this cracked mirror that the novel is reflected. There is a strong duality about Yalo right from the beginning of the novel, and a persuasive sense of uncertainty even before the torture begins. Told to write not just his confessions but his entire life, Yalo struggles with a naturally imperfect memory.
“Tossed here, isolated from the world, Yalo was confused
as to how he should organise 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.”
And his grandfather, the priest, does not augur any better a future:
“When life is over, a man becomes like clay, and can no longer
distinguish between truth and illusion, or the past from the present.
He becomes like a young child.”
It is not until his final torture – coke-bottle sodomy, perhaps suggestive of the post-war invasion of mass media culture into Lebanon – that Yalo's narrative confusion, his frequent digressions and non-sequiturs, is 'healed.' There is a distinct shift in the voice and the story is now narrated by Daniel, which is, of course, Yalo's given name. The flawed Lebanese soul of Daniel/Yalo has been gripped by the pincers of pain and torn in two, into Daniel and Yalo.
“I, Daniel, am writing, and will write anything you want about
him [Yalo] 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. I got down
off the bottle while he still sits on the throne.”
While the dizzy whorl of Yalo's selective amnesia might sound like an interesting framing device, it is often not. It is a technique that does adequately convey the madness and mental peripeteia of the novel's protagonist, but he is not a character really worth knowing. Nor can we, for in the tale extracted from him there is little credibility: his is a story taken not with a grain of salt but a field sown as such, where nothing nourishing and true grows.
There are many who would describe Elias Khoury as a political writer, but I prefer to see it as his Lebanese-ness (though I'm sure he would prefer the qualifier-free “writer”). His writing is political precisely because he is Lebanese. To write from a Lebanese tradition is to be aware of the political history of the nation and its internal discontent.
It is literature's special purpose to reveal the Self in moving toward the Other. But the Lebanese Self, insofar as we are creatures of our environment, is naturally political, and so a Lebanese author's writing – if it is good writing – is unavoidably political. “Beirut's past is not of stability, but f violent change,” Khoury says in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in 2007. “Everything is open, uncertain. In my fiction, you're not sure if things really happened, only that they're narrated. What's important is the story, not the history.” But Khoury, an author whose stories draw so much from the history of his country, is surely being disingenuous here.
Though he has given, in his fractured narrative structure, a sense of the fragmentation of the modern Lebanese soul, the pieces fail to catch the light, are dull and dusty. One is left with the feeling that, after attempting to piece it all together, we don't have the right adhesive, and neither does Khoury, and it is with little regret that we sweep the pieces from the floor and toss them into the trash.
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © David J. Single, 2010