Monday, 18 March 2013

'White Masks' by Elias Khoury (Review)

As you may have gathered by now, I'm currently working my way through this year's IFFP longlist, but today's review is on a book which may be a chance for next time around.  Elias Khoury is a Lebanese writer, one who has been longlisted for the prize before, and his latest work is an excellent tale of a search for truth in a city which has lost its way.  Will this be on the judge's list next year?  Let's see...

White Masks (translated by Maia Tabet, review copy from MacLehose Press) starts with a body found in the streets of Beirut, covered in a pile of rubbish.  Khalid Ahmad Jaber had gone missing a few days earlier, and while people turning up dead is hardly a rarity in the Lebanese capital during the civil war, Jaber's case is a little different - mainly because no-one can understand why he would have been killed.

The main voice of the novel is a journalist (a fictionalised Khoury) who decides to investigate the case by looking at it from a variety of angles, interviewing anyone who can shed light on poor Khalid's final hours.  He talks to the man's distraught wife, his neighbours, the rubbish collector who found the body, a militia man who saw him briefly, his daughter...  Owing to the unusual nature of Khalid's death, he begins to be praised as a martyr, despite the fact that his death had nothing to do with the ongoing conflict:
"And the poor martyr, Khalil...I swear he's a martyr...I feel ashamed of myself...but I didn't know that he was the Khalil Ahmad Jaber who would be murdered and whose picture would be in all the papers.  I swear, had I known, I would've taken him in and cared for him...What can we do?  It was God's will!"
p.72 (MacLehose Press, 2013)
There is no shortage of people willing to talk to the journalist about Khalid's final days.  However, none of the witness are able to shed light on a rather puzzling case.

But from the very beginning, we suspect that White Masks is less about one man and more about life in Beirut as a whole.  By looking at one particular crime, Khoury paints a picture of a city in constant turmoil, where the extraordinary is ordinary and life is difficult to live and easy to lose.  Beirut is a city in pieces.  Nothing works, and the infrastructure has broken down.  Houses have been shelled, gangs roam the street, torture is an ever-present possibility... and the rubbish piles up uncollected.  Throughout the novel, the writer foregrounds the smells - of the city and of Khalid.  The poor man's stench is representative of a city in decay...

White Masks is divided into six statements from eye witnesses, bookended by the journalist's prologue and epilogue.  However, the witnesses' stories rarely restrict themselves to the matter in hand, and they go off on elaborate tangents, touching on their experiences with Khalid before retuning to stories about their partners, their families, or perhaps just stories they have heard in the street.  The perspective changes from third person to first at the drop of a hat (and back again).  It's all a little unusual for the Anglophone reader.

This difference of style is enhanced by the language used.  Tabet's translation is excellent, and the flavour is enhanced by the obvious Arabic slant to the writing.  In addition to the Arabic exclamations (al-hamdulillah, insh'allah, mashallah) which pepper the text, the witnesses' rhetorical style is slightly alien.  They address the reader directly, appeal to them, exaggerate, repeat themselves, their stories twisting and turning around in circles.

At times, the style is almost playful, linguistic gymnastics which have very little to do with what the witnesses were actually asked about.  However, the light tone only serves to put the more serious moments in starker focus.  When events turn darker, the effect is poignant:
"The blonde youth reeled, like a dancer doing a jig.  And even as his head came to rest on the ground, the hair already stiff and matted with dust, his body danced on, his feet twitching against the pavement...And then, finally, he slept..." p.91
Khoury is wonderful at striking the right balance between rowdy, rambling stories and brief, striking moments of terror, a balance which makes the book a pleasure to read.

One more theme which perhaps deserves attention is the description of gender roles in the Lebanese (Arabic) community of the time.  The men are cruel, lazy and workshy, beating and raping their wives, begging for (and stealing) money, unwilling to behave in the manner the reader would want them to.  However, the women in the novel appear to admire 'manly' men and despise those men who behave like women, leading you to wonder whether the writer is condemning, condoning or merely remarking on the husbands' behaviour... 

White Masks is a great read, a novel written in a wonderfully engaging style, and an excellent entry point into Arabic-language literature for those (like me) who are woefully under-read in this area.  The writer is more concerned with painting a picture of Beirut than finding out who killed Khalid, but in the end, does it really matter?
"No.  Even assuming the murderer was identified, and the motives of the crime were known, even if, finally, the murderer were put to death, it would not change anything.  People say that putting murderers to death serves as a deterrent to others but in reality, no-one is being deterred.  Murderers are executed and nothing changes." p.239
Defeatism, or a determination to move forward?  You be the judge.