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Review of Yalo by Rayyan al-Shawaf, Chicago Sun-Times

Lebanese novelist further explores alienation in ‘Yalo’

FICTION | New book is a swirl of motifs that finally come together


January 18, 2008 BY RAYYAN AL-SHAWAF   Elias Khoury, the Lebanese novelist whose magnum opus, Gate of the Sun, masterfully recounts the Palestinian saga of dispossession and exile, continues his lifelong inquiry into alienation in Yalo. As with several of Khoury’s novels, the eponymous protagonist ekes out an existence on the margins of society.


When we first meet Yalo, he is undergoing interrogation for crimes committed in peacetime Lebanon. The war, during which Yalo fought in the ranks of a Christian militia, is over, yet “when it ended, [it] left an immense void in his life.” Though often unfocused, Yalo is a haunting tale of a man who can only do wrong — even when he means well — and of a vile correctional system that annihilates those who fall into its clutches.


Around torture-laced interrogation swirl several vague philosophic motifs that always fascinate, but only occasionally congeal as tangible story elements. Successful examples include: the uses and abuses of ethno-cultural identity — Yalo’s grandfather is a Syriac/Kurd/Arab who chooses to identify solely with his Syriac heritage; the perils of inheriting memories — contemporary Lebanese of all sects relate centuries-old traumas as though they experienced them personally, and the way meaning straddles languages — Arabic-speaking Yalo is rendered mute in France, but even in Lebanon cannot express his love to his beloved Shirin or explain his actions to the interrogator without recourse to the few Syriac words he knows.


Veteran translator Peter Theroux proves just as comfortable with the Lebanese vernacular of Arabic as he was with its Egyptian counterpart in Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley and the Arabian dialects he encountered translating the first three volumes of Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt quintet. Additionally, Theroux ensures that the modern standard Arabic in which Khoury has written the central narrative loses none of its evocative power. For example, Yalo’s creepy mother “would stand for hours in front of the mirror and say that she was washing the age from her face.” And thanks to his angst-ridden grandfather, Yalo’s mind brims with macabre images, including this Felliniesque gem: “A person’s body parts stopped growing, except for the nose and ears. Death was a mercy, for if a man kept living, he would turn into just a long nose and two giant ears, that is, a cross between an elephant and a donkey.”


Familial weirdness aside, Yalo might have turned out normal were it not for Lebanon’s aberrant trajectory between 1975 and 1990, his formative years. One of the most poignant aspects of the novel is Yalo’s passion for woodwork, and his doomed hope that he might yet return to the arduous but gratifying labor of which he lovingly explains: “You must know how to divide wood into two types, male and female, and join them as a man joins a woman. Nails kill the spirit of wood, whereas dovetailing returns its life by marrying it to itself and restores the fluid that flowed out when the trees were cut.” Sadly, a terrible force intruded and permanently derailed Yalo’s life. The protagonist puts it to his interrogator thus: “Yalo’s story, sir, has a name — war.”


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