Yalo is Elias Khoury’s tenth novel, though not all of his previous work has been translated into English. You don’t have to look too deeply to see the reasons for this. A Lebanese author, he writes about the complex history and troubles of a part of the world that many of us might not want to be reminded of outside of news broadcasts. Equally, his style could not be described as reader friendly, relying on interior monologue and other initially narrow narrative viewpoints. Yalo tells the story of a young man, Daniel, whose complicated upbringing leads to involvement in the civil war in Beirut, desertion to France, and finally arrest and interrogation, accused of robbery and rape. The story, however, is not told chronologically – Daniel – or Yalo – is already under interrogation when the novel begins. It is also told entirely from Yalo’s point of view, generally in third person, but interspersed with first person confessions that Yalo is made to write, and then rewrite, in the course of his interrogation. From this initially confusing and uncompromising approach, however, emerges a powerful portrait of a troubled young man who struggles to understand the world around him.
At the heart of the novel lies Yalo’s love for Shireen, the woman who has accused him of rape. He meets her as a result of lying in wait in a secluded spot, armed with a Kalashnikov, for lovers in their cars, with the intention of robbing them, and perhaps raping the women. He claims that this began by chance:
“Then he put his hand into his pocket and gave me a handful of dollars and Lebanese lira. I hadn’t planned to rob him. I hadn’t a plan at all. I’d only wanted to watch.”
With Shireen, however, it is different:
“But I confess before God and before you that I used to rape women, because you call it rape, and because after I became enamoured of Shireen I discovered that it was rape compared with the beautiful, fantastic sex a person can have with the woman he loves.”
The phrase “you call it rape” reveals that we cannot trust Yalo to know if it is rape or not. It is also clear that he stalked her:
“Yes. I used to wait at her flat. The when she came out, I’d follow her to work and wait. Then I’d follow her back home.”
On the other hand, Shireen claims to have been there with her fiancé the night they met, whereas Yalo says it was another man, a doctor who performed an abortion on her, something he has no reason to lie about. Shireen also meets him a number of times after that night. Is this simply out of fear? Questions like these mean that our sympathies for Yalo tend to fluctuate as the narrative progresses.
The interrogation itself gives us reason to sympathise with him. Brutal throughout, it includes placing the lower half of his body, naked, in a sack with a cat and then beating the cat, and also forcing him to sit on a Coke bottle. It also becomes clear that they not only want him to confess to the rape, but to other crimes he has not committed:
“Do you really think we’re stupid enough to believe that it’s just about playing the peeping tom and doing your dirty business? We want all the information about the network that’s been planting bombs and wreaking havoc around the country.”
Despite his crimes, Yalo often appear the victim, not simply of his interrogators, but of chance. Even his background is a matter of chance: his grandfather, who raises him with his mother, was born a Syrian Christian, but brought up by a Muslim Kurd, only to return, later, to his roots. Yalo, though raised a Syrian, speaks Arabic. In this way Khoury dramatises the complex histories and relationships of the area. Yalo’s current job as a night watchman is also a matter of chance as he met his employer in Paris, after being abandoned there by the fellow soldier he had stolen money and deserted with. It is perhaps the fact that, as his life unfolds before us, we realise that meeting Shireen is the first time that he has experienced love, which makes his story so affecting. However sympathetic we feel towards him by the end, though, Khoury has undoubtedly created a complex, three dimensional character who resists our judgement.
Can it win? This is a very fine novel, and Khoury is exactly the kind of writer the Prize is designed to promote. It should make the short list at least.