Yalo, By Elias Khoury

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The Independent Culture

Elias Khoury's 11th novel starts in the middle of a series of forced confessions, which spiral in unending variation until the eponymous Yalo concludes that "no one can write life". Yalo is a thief and rapist, a security guard turned "hunter" in the forested hills above Beirut. Not only has he inverted his job, but he's fallen in love with one of his victims. The novel begins as Shireen denounces Yalo before his interrogators, setting in motion his desperate attempts at "singing" his story.

Daniel Jalao/Habeel Abyad, aka Yalo, is a 30-year-old Assyrian and veteran of 10 years' fighting in Lebanon's civil war of the 1980s. As he circles back through his lives, Yalo revisits those years as a war-dog in that many-sided conflict. Finally sickening of it, he accompanies a friend to Paris after robbing the safe at their barracks, only to be left alone and begging at Montparnasse métro station. He's rescued from destitution by a Lebanese arms dealer who needs a guard.

Yalo's grandfather was a refugee from Ottoman massacres of Assyrians. He looms in a mystical guise throughout the novel as patriarch and priest of the Syriac Orthodox Christian Church in Beirut. When Yalo heads for Paris, his grandfather counsels that "emigration killed a man's soul". This is why he had "learned to read what had been erased", he says. "We are a people whose story has been rubbed out."

Yalo's difficulty with words; his smattering of a "dead" Syriac tongue; his ambivalence towards Arabic and struggle to narrate, begin here. Khoury leads us towards his displacement brilliantly, but it's only one of the big ideas to which he gives vivid life. Yalo the disaffected fugitive is part Everyman, part Lebanese Underground Man, and part the refugee as coming global citizen.

Yalo is a highly compelling performance, presented in beautifully crafted, often lilting prose, a tribute to Khoury's authorship in Arabic as well as to Humphrey Davies' translation. This novel is about a corrupted individual in a corrupting time, but it speaks of and to us all.

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