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Review of Yalo by John Freeman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

YALO delves into mind of an accused rapist

2008-01-15

What is more damaging to a storyteller’s accuracy: time or torture?

Here is the heart of Elias Khoury’s mesmerizing new novel, Yalo, in which the title character, a young man, is arrested at the end of the Lebanese civil war and charged with rape, robbery and collaboration.

The charges against Yalo are serious in a country seeking to avenge its one-time avengers. If Yalo cannot get his story straight, he faces life in prison or worse.

Parsing fact from fantasy is not going to be an easy task, for Khoury’s troubled, shell-shocked ex-soldier is a man caught between worlds and languages.

He also inherits a legacy of forgetting. Yalo’s Kurdish grandfather grew up in Syria, speaking the dead Aramaic language of Syriac, but immigrated to Lebanon and became a Christian priest. Yalo’s mother was abandoned by his father and spent her life obsessed with a lover who refused to divorce his wife.

This family history emerges to the readers through flashbacks that spring open like escape-hatches during Yalo’s interrogation. In the book’s opening scene, Yalo sits before two court officers and Shirin, the woman he is accused of raping. As he is taunted and threatened, Yalo withdraws into his mind, where he recalls rapping his gun on the window of a parked car in which Shirin sat with a man not her fianc√©. What happens afterward is to Yalo an act of love but in legal terms is rape.

Or was it? Asking the reader to sympathize with a rapist is probably as bold a gambit as Nabokov’s tale about Humbert Humbert in “Lolita,” but Khoury goes at it in a different fashion. As he did in “Gate of the Sun,” his powerful epic of the Palestinian diaspora, Khoury piles one story upon the next upon the next, clouding a reader’s perception of what is real and what is imagined, what is told to family members orally and what has actually happened.

At the same time, Yalo’s life expands concentrically before our eyes. We learn how he left school to fight in the war, lost friends, was abandoned in Paris, then rescued by a rich arms dealer. As the interrogation heats up, we hear the story of his robbing and raping over and over again and, with each telling, Yalo’s own faith in it erodes.

“They asked you things you had already confessed to,” Yalo thinks, “and when you repeated your confessions you made mistakes, which was an unavoidable thing because you cannot tell the same story twice.”

However you feel about crime and punishment, Yalo will make for difficult reading. In one horrific scene, Yalo is stripped of his clothes and dropped into a sack with a wild animal and then beaten.

One of the weaknesses of this novel is that while Khoury portrays Yalo’s torture in realistic terms, he does not step outside his head to portray his crimes. We are, therefore, trapped inside Yalo’s history and his mind.

Perhaps that is where Khoury wanted us to be, suffocated by the past, swirling around in a sea of recrimination and rationalization, cut off from Yalo’s effect on others. And so it is through such a blinkered perspective that war crimes are committed.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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