by Elias Khoury
Translated from the Arabic by Maia Tabet
June 2010, £14.60/$22, 250 pages)
Civil war-era Beirut is a filthy, damaged mess. Posters of martyrs peel from the walls, fridges sit endlessly without electricity and start to smell, husbands take unsuitable second wives, children run mad in the streets and militiamen might loot your house and rape your grandmother or show surprising mercy. Somewhere in this city which is a distorted shadow of itself, the body of retired post office worker Khalil Ahmad Jaber is discovered naked to the waist and full of puncture wounds. Simply another random horror, a line in a newspaper to be swiftly forgotten as just one among many other bodies?
Not so; the fate of Khalil Ahmad Jaber attracts the attention of a bored travel agent and frustrated journalist, though this is no tale of crime-solving or redemption. The narrator opens with the dampening sentiment that the story ‘may not be of particular interest to readers, as people these days have more important things to do that read stories or listen to tales. And they’re absolutely right.’ Intrigued largely by the fact that no-one seems to have had a reason to do away with the victim, he talks to people who knew the man and pieces together as much as he can of the case from newspapers and official reports; the novel is made up of his findings. As people are wont to do, his interviewees talk about their lives as much as they do about the case; the disruptions, losses, killings and sheer surrealist madness that they, one way or another, are surviving. Strength and humanity, tenderness and brutality, damaged minds and the tides of filth and immorality that people casually accept or try to counter – all these emerge in various forms. Through it all, the unexpected soul of Khalil Ahmad Jaber haunts his many biographers, still fretting, perhaps, that he died before he was able to cover the whole city in a mask of white lime.
Lebanese literary legend Elias Khoury published ‘White Masks’ in 1981, but it only became available in English translation this year. As Beirut fractures unrecognisably once more in its post-war incarnation – though through the rapacious appetites of tower block developers rather than sectarian sniping – and the drums of regional war rattle away intermittently in the newspapers, the fetid breath of conflict and the psychological impacts it wreaks that rise from the pages of Khoury’s novel are dreadfully unnerving. The Lebanese are still living with the suppressed memories of their wars, even as their capital city booms wildly, overflowing with tourists and investment. The return of ‘White Masks’ to the bookshelves is an uncomfortable reminder of how close the past is, and of the fragility of the many faces of the city.