Yalo sits sweating in an interrogation room in Beirut. It is February 1992. His accuser is Shireen, the woman he loves. The charge – at least to begin with – is robbery and rape. Yalo is innocent, or so he thinks. So back we go, to investigate what happened.
After the war in Lebanon, Yalo and his friend, Tony Ateeq, stole money from their barracks and ran away to Paris. But Tony skipped off, leaving Yalo with no francs, no French, and no friends. Living as a clochard, Yalo was found by the lawyer Michel Salloum, who brought him back to Lebanon, offering him work as a guard at his house in Ballona. So now Yalo lives in a little hut below the lawyer's house and patrols the nearby forest at night, carrying a torch and a gun. The forest is the site of nightly encounters for clandestine couples who drive up and park somewhere shadowy. After sex, they drive away again; except when Yalo happens upon them, when, if he so chooses, he can help himself to their money, their jewels, their watches, or to the women themselves. One night, the woman he finds trysting is Shireen, and he falls in love with her, dazed by the smell of incense from her arms. She accuses him now of rape.
Yalo, by Elias Khoury, author of the acclaimed Gate of the Sun, gives us Yalo's confession. Or rather, his attempt at a confession, as the precise truth constantly eludes him, as it does us. While Yalo, in his prison cell, tries to record his own story, he learns (as we do) that stories can be tricky and dangerous things. There are old falsehoods that entrap him, family matters that have been hidden since before he was born, and there are many things that are easier not to say.
As Yalo writes the story of his life, over and over, trying to exculpate himself, he is trying to define himself, too. The war looms large: the country bears its scars, but for Yalo, the ending of the war has left a gap in his life. The novel locks its readers into Yalo's perspective, but as the confessions develop and Yalo's view of himself evolves, that perspective becomes increasingly complex. Yalo is a hawk, a squid, a billygoat; the developing story disconnects Yalo the storyteller from Yalo the subject, mixing first- and third-person narrative sometimes within a single paragraph. The facts he wrestles with are unstable – even his own name. The multiple versions double back, turn in on themselves, interrogate and challenge and contradict one another; new details are slipped in with each re-telling, old details that once seemed firm are undermined. Amid the tangle there are scenes of appalling torture, of sudden brutality that is shocking and repellent – and yet it is hard to extricate oneself from the compelling, relentlessly immediate tale. Yalo is not an easy book to read; not an easy book not to.
Elias Khoury appears today at the London Review Bookshop. See www.lrbshop.co.uk for details