Through torture one can learn—if you are the reader. Elias Khoury’s sometimes tough, sometimes disorienting novel, but always interesting, uses torture as a tool not only to to examine the politics and history of Lebanon, but the lives of Syriac (Maronite) Christians, and more broadly how can one be certain of what one knows in the worst of times.
Daniel Yalo, as we learn, is a veteran and deserter of the civil way who has led a directionless life that has amounted to little. Now imprisoned for planning a bombing the authorities ruthlessly interrogate him for information. Of course, he has little to give and as the sessions continue and become more extreme and degrading, they reduce him physically and mentally to a weakling willing to say or do anything. By novel’s end he barely knows what he has done and hasn’t done. Yalo is a novel where truth shifts and facts are never quite clear. With each torture sessions he finds himself changing his stories to tell the guards what he thinks they want to know. At first he denies he has done anything illegal, but slowly as he is beaten and tortured he begins to admit to things. Most of these crimes, though, don’t have anything to do with the bombing, but instead break apart the self deceit and lies he has told himself over the years. He admits to a series of rapes, not all at once, but in fragments that only make it clear he is not the most redeeming character. He also admits to robberies and affairs. Yet with each admission, with each life story he writes, he contradicts a previous admission so that it is never clear which admission is the truth. By the end of the novel it is obvious that Yalo is anything but a good man, but whether he is a rapist and thief or something lesser it is hard to know.
Along with the admissions of guilt Yalo looks back at his childhood and the war and he tries to explain in his life stories why he is the way he is. It is seldom useful, for the interrogators are seldom interested in the past, but like a fool who never quite understands what is happening to him, he continues to write more and more. Slowly he reveals enough details to piece together a rough, if inaccurate, life story. The illegitimate son of a tailor and the daughter of a Siriac priest, he is raised by his mother and grandfather who he calls his father. The grandfather is a strange man given to going to the seashore to drink sea water in a religious ritual. He is also a servier man incapable of compromise and his harsh character marks the boy.
Now, sir, even as he is suspended between the earth and the sky, the rapture runs through Yalo’s veins when he remembers the difference between a cooked woman and a raw woman. The theory was devised by my grandfather, God rest his soul. No, sir, my grandfather had no women, for he was a man riddled with complexes, but he divided food into two categories: meat and vegetables. After giving up the eating of all variations of meant, he assigned vegetables to three categories: defective, uncertain, and perfect. The defective do not ripen to be fit for consumption until they are cooked over the fire, like zucchini or beans or okra, and so on. The uncertain also ripen by fire even though they can be eaten raw, like eggplant, spinach, fava beans, and chick peas, etc. As to the perfect, they ripen in the sun and need no flame, because they have interior fire. These were all varieties of the finest fruit, grapes, figs, and tomatoes. My grandfather chose the perfect vegetables, and he ended his life eating nothing but raw vegetables. He even gave up eating bread. He began to shrink, he got very thin, his bones grew as porous as clay, and his flesh grew as rough as bone. He died with the intention of becoming a clay figure backed by the sun.
Through the interplay of these memories such as these , Khoury sketches a metaphor for Lebanon where truth is precarious and reflects not only where you come from, but who wants to know and when. Given the precariousness of it all is possible to go forward or they domed to repeat the war where “the Lebanese had dug up the history of all their past wars to justify their madness, which made talking to them impossible.”