In mid-2012 I read and reviewed the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award shortlisted “Limassol” by Yishai Sarid (translated from the Hebrew), the story of an Israeli secret service agent who is a hard-nosed violent interrogator who lacks emotion and wants to see the streets cleared of suicide bombers. Although not lingering in my mind for too long, it was one of my first exposures to the literature of that region, upon reflection I should have looked at Elias Khoury instead (not because I want to specifically choose Lebanon, or Palestine, or Syria, or Israel, or Jordan from the area, more because the quality of the literature is so much more engaging).
In an interview with Archipelago Books, before the release of “White Masks” Khoury said “Currently living in Beirut means living on the edge of a volcano. You feel that at any moment this volcano may become active, and of course we are at the center of the tragedy in Syria on the one hand; and at the heart of the tragedy of the Palestinian on the other. We are surrounded by tragedies and we have our tragedies. This is a country which was destroyed twice. The city was almost completely destroyed with the Israeli invasion in 1982, and by its aerial bombing. There is still the feeling that survival is the main issue and survival gives meaning to life itself. ”
Set in an interview room in a prison in Beirut, our protagonist is Daniel, known as Yalo. He’s under interrogation for a rape he claims he did not commit. As a young boy Yalo used to close his eyes when he lied, under the torments of his grandfather who wanted Yalo to confess something he’d close his eyes and make something up, each time he was beaten. Early in this work I started wondering if each time Yalo closes his eyes and “confesses” a crime is he lying? With no father, there is no doubting Yalo is involved in at least petty theft, he doesn’t deny he hijacked a car parked in the forest, where the stories diverge is when the girl, Shirin, claims Yalo then took her into the forest and raped her, he claims his in love with her, she claims he stalks her, intimidates her:
When she showed signs of standing up after paying the check, he caught her by the hand and felt everything inside him tremble. The softness of the hand cheered and intoxicated him. Yalo would write that there in the café he discovered a softness he had never known and would feel regret that he’d not discovered it at his home in Ballouna. There he felt a woman so light that she could have flown to the rhythm of the desire exploding inside him. It had not been sated. He said he had never felt her softness because he had been submerged in the scent of incense from her forearms. In the café, an unspeakable softness spread through his limbs, as if her cold fingers were made of silk and stitched to her palms.
Our protagonist here is brutally tortured, accused of a number of crimes, if found guilty many would surely lead to the death penalty, and as a result he is forced into confessing no end of atrocities. As part of the interrogation, Yalo is forced to write his life story. We then have chapters of first person memories, followed again by third person sections viewing Yalo’s interrogation. The blur between truth and fiction becomes palpable, at one stage he claims he can’t write, another he has the best handwriting at school, his confessions to crimes are they under tortured duress or is there some semblance of truth? What is truth? What is memory?
Yalo did not deny that during the civil war, he had begun to distinguish between terror and fear. Yalo could never forget his first night at the Sodeco checkpoint on the Green Line in Beirut when the shooting started and he felt unable to control his bowels and that his knees where going to give out. He crept over to the corner of the checkpoint, squatted, and defecated. No one saw him. All the guys were busy fighting while he was busy shitting, as Alexei told him the next day when the odor was obvious. The word shit would have become part of his name had the Goat Battalion not withdrawn from Sodeco and taken up a new position near the museum. There, at the museum line, Yalo learned how to be afraid without losing control of his bowels, though at the beginning of every exchange of gunfire he felt the need to urinate. He controlled himself in the beginning, then when he was nearly losing control, he joked to the guys that he was going to piss on the enemy. When he saw their looks of bewilderment, he came out from behind the barricade, squatted, and pissed under the volleys of bullets.
“Why do you piss that way, like the Bedouin?” asked Tony.
Yalo replied that this was the humanitarian way to urinate: “We have to squat rather than flaunt what God has given to us,” said Yalo, repeating his grandfather’s saying.
It was during the war that Yalo learned the difference between fear and terror. A fighter might be afraid, but an ordinary person would be terror-struck. That was why Yalo chose to be a fighter. He fought to inflict rather than feel terror. It’s true that he was afraid, but fear was nothing compared to the terror that paralyzed a man and made his mind a blank.
As our story unfolds and Yalo’s story gets told and retold, under interrogation, the subtleties change, there is more depth to his story, the layers upon layer start to become a whole, but the truth remains elusive, as we find the anecdotes contradicting each other. As in the retelling of the war, what is history, what is fact, what is fiction? We again begin to question the truth. This tale is not a coherent whole, it is a murky pile of human oral history.
At first, Yalo saw himself as a hero, the war had come to teach him the secrets of life. That was what he felt in the training camp where he had become a Goat. He and his comrades, poor kids from the Suriac Quarter, became the masters of the streets. Yalo understood little of the complications and convolutions of the war that made talk of it seem so useless. He believed that he was fighting for the existence of a people who had disappeared into the darkness of history, as the cohno had described the continued migrations that had brought him from Ain Ward to Beirut. “we came from the darkness of history, and we will stay in the darkness, until the sun of justice rises.” When Yalo asked him about the “sun of justice,” the cohno replied that it was the Messiah. “My boy, we are awaiting the Kingdom of the Messiah, and He said that His kingdom was not of this world.”
Yalo did not understand Lebanese politics or the language of war. He played along as if he were acting in a movie, and when he took part in a battle he felt as though he were a hero. But his feelings of heroism disappeared with time. He felt sad when he heard his mother, quoting the cohno, saying that war was useless. “We have to be yeast. We do not fight, my boy. The yeast does not fight the dough, but becomes part of it and leavens it so that it becomes bread. Leave the war and go to school. You should become a cohno like your grandfather.”
Yalo was frightened by the image of himself he saw in his mother’s eyes, for it had become a miniature version of his grandfather with his immense white beard. But what he feared above all else was the emptiness, not the sight of the bones with shredded clothes, but the profound emptiness of this war, which had become monotonous. The idea of war was seductive and gave you a feeling of heroism, but the war itself was tedious and repugnant.
Personally I didn’t believe a word of Yalo’s story, the coverslip tells us that his is forced to confess to crimes of which he has little or no recollection. I wasn’t too sure. The anti-hero, a thief and alleged rapist who we pity due to torture?
Later in the novel Daniel (Yalo’s real name) comes to the fore and begins writing Yalo’s story adding further complexities and layers to the tale.
A tale that unravels each page you turn, the story of a single man’s obsessions, life in Beirut, mistaken identities all presented in a wonderful language, giving you an ethereal feel, almost dreamlike as flashback upon flashback reveal Yalo’s family history, his travels to France, his involvement in the civil war, his employment, his insatiable sexual appetite and his blundering in love. Yet again, another writer who I will be reading more from, another great discovery.
Please note this version made the shortlist of the 2010 Best Translated Book Award, it is a different translation (by Humphrey Davies) that made the 2010 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Longlist.