Can memory ever be truth? In Elias Khoury's new novel Yalo, translated from Arabic by Peter Theroux, this question torments the principal character as he attempts and ultimately fails to differentiate between reality and the precarious accusations made against him. Like in Khoury's other novels, Yalo incorporates the author's personal experiences, such as his involvement in the Lebanese civil war and his visits to Palestinian refugee camps, to successfully provide a very specific perspective on the conflicts in various parts of the Middle East.
Because war is a frequent basis for his novels, memory, fate, and identity seem to be recurring themes in many of the works of Elias Khoury, a professor and editor of Al-Mulhaq. Khoury has served on the faculty of Columbia University, the American University of Beirut, Lebanese University, and New York University, where he currently teaches. His most popular novel, Gate of the Sun, is an epic about the lives of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon after 1948.
Yalo, its contemporary cousin, is set in 1980s Lebanon, a place torn by civil war partly caused by a more tangible religious conflict between Christians and Muslims after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Born into a family with multiethnic roots, accused prisoner Yalo experiences confusion about his identity. While his grandfather, a Kurdish Syrian who speaks Syriac, emigrates to Lebanon and becomes a Christian priest, Yalo tries to come to terms with the accusations of his own crimes in the form of a sort of personal confession.
Khoury's complex character descriptions gracefully capture the reader and provide a sharp contrast to Yalo's confused rants about his own life. The complexity of Yalo's self-conception parallels his confusion about the specific events that led up to his supposed crimes—every version of his story, successively layered in the novel, becomes longer and more false than the one before.
Like in Tim O'Brien's compilation of short stories, The Things They Carried, Khoury's descriptions in Yalo often become poetic, conveying the difficulty in transcribing blurred memory into words. Yalo tries to remember the night he was rescued by a benevolent Frenchman, but all he can recall is "a night like a black coat, a silence like silence, and stars spread out above him as if they were the opening to eternity, an eternity taking him to the end of fear."
At times this poeticism becomes overbearingly challenging for the reader. On the whole, though, Khoury makes it clear that this method is necessary to realistically express the serious effects of psychological manipulation of political prisoners.
Although Yalo's memory of individual events fails him, he can clearly remember as well as characterize the leading figures in his life. In fact, the confusion and the muddled memories help him evoke the most important facts about his supposed crimes. These moments are the most fulfilling for the reader—moments of clarity that burst out through the haze of misinformation and fabricated propaganda.
As the novel draws to a close, Yalo pleads, "I want a different ending," but Khoury refuses to give him one. He leaves readers virtually no room to feel optimistic—as long as Yalo is confused, there is no hope for us to see the truth either. Khoury firmly upholds the bleak truth that war interrogations, particularly violent ones, can rarely elucidate reality.
In the end, all we can know for sure about Yalo's unusual story are the barest facts—his name, the names of his parents, and where he was born. Perhaps the only truth the book holds is this—despite the lengthy confession, we will never know who Yalo really is, much in the way that most people torn between various cultures can never figure out who they are, either.