Elias Khoury: White Masks

While growing up I often heard about the fighting in Lebanon, though I was too young to understand just what that meant.  It occupied a large part of my young imagination, but when I was older and learned the basics of the conflict, I never bothered to look into specifics.  One great thing about a good book: it makes you want to learn more about whatever its talking about.  Elias Khoury, who lived through the civil war, wrote White Masks (Al-Wujûb al-baydâ, 1981; tr. from the Arabic by Maia Tabet, 2010) right in the midst of it.

Incidentally, this is one of the best constructed books I’ve had the pleasure to hold.  It is a nice, practically square hardback with a sharp-edged binding.  The paper is exquisite to touch.  Good books should be packaged well.

When I say good book, however, I don’t necessarily mean enjoyable, at least, not enjoyable in the way I would typically use that word.  I found White Masks a very difficult book to wrestle with due to a mixture of evasive writing and boring writing.  Though I’m glad I stuck through it, I knew throughout that if I put it down for long I might not return to it.  Well, more on that in a minute, because the book wasn’t always a struggle.  The book begins with a great little introduction.

This is no tale.  And it may not be of particular interest to readers, as people these days have more important things to do than read stories or listen to tales.  And they’re absolutely right.  But this story really did happen.

This is how we meet our nameless narrator (though he won’t always be our narrator).  He is a young, though he has already left journalism school behind.  Still, he has the urge to chase down stories:

One morning, I saw in the paper a short piece entitled “Dreadful murder in the UNESCO district” and, don’t ask me why, but whenever I see the word “dreadful,” the word “wonderful” springs to mind.

The victim is Khalil Ahmad Jaber, but there seems to be no reason for his murder.  For one thing, he is just a simple civil servant, hardly worth the trouble of what appears to be a very brutal, deliberate assault.  But even more peculiar is the fact that Jaber is the father of one of the young men killed in the war.  The young man being a martyr, all honor to the parents.  The mystery called to our narrator.

The murkier the story got, the greater my interest grew.  Thanks to a variety of sources I was able to contact, as well as my daily perusal of the papers, I was able to collect a vast amount of information pertaining to the murder, which, according to medical reports, took place on the morning of April 13, 1980.

The narrator interviews many people with even a slight connection to the victim.  The result is a series of oral histories, somewhat reminding me of The Good War by Studs Terkel.  The narrator steps back and, almost without inserting his own voice, allows the speaker to tell a story.

As each speaker begins his or her story, the victim and the murder often go into the background and the speaker becomes the subject.  In fact, one of the longest stories is told by one of the men who found the body.  This man had only a few minutes with the victim, and he never knew him alive.  However, in these digressive narratives, though the war seems like incidental backstory, there is a lot of subtle criticism. 

In the wife’s story, for example, we watch as the Jaber, before his death, goes about hanging up posters of his son the martyr.  (Here is a great link to the American University of Beirut Jafet Library that shows a few of these martyr posters.)  He does this compulsively.  Years pass, people think the war is over, yet he is still going around hanging up posters.  His madness continues to develop as he pastes up the propaganda for the cause that killed his son.  And in his madness the only support he and his wife receive is from the party’s martyr stipend.

This madness and the posters are a fascinating theme throughout, especially when Jaber begins to use erasers to erase the posters, all amidst his own commentary that the posters erase the wall (probably a partially destroyed wall thanks to the bombs) they are plastered on.

Still, these digressive narratives became, for me, too much of a maze.  I admit that pages would go by where I just didn’t know how what I was reading fit into the greater narrative.  I’m sure my ignorance is partly to blame.  But also, I suspect that meandering could have been part of the point, a way to show that these characters were in control of their story and wouldn’t deviate despite the narrator’s prompts and despite reader expectations. 

The reader could just refer to the forensic pathologist’s report and dispense with all the attendant detail; alternatively, he might find it sufficient to read the wife’s statement or those of the municipal workers — they were the ones to discover the naked corpse dumped on the roadside.  Indeed, the reader might even regard this introduction as adequate, and leave it at that.  Every one of us has a story, after all, and that’s more than enough.  We have no need of other people’s.

And in the end, the narrator offers some more commentary on his search for the mystery behind the murder:

I find myself completely baffled: the author feels he doesn’t really know what happened in his story and that he is not in full possession of the facts . . .

So even knowing that the digressions and evasiveness are deliberate, it made for some very frustrating reading.  At times it made me think of my experience with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which was also frustrating in its evasiveness and digressions.  However, in 2666 I was never tempted to put the book down.  The writing was powerful and visceral, and the story, as pointless as its point may be, was fascinating.  Thankfully, after finishing White Masks I was glad I’d been through it.  The writing is not Bolaño’s (and I never wanted it to be), but it is strong, the voices are interesting, and some of the conceits are illuminating.  It is a worthwhile book, but make sure you have the energy to grapple with it.

3 thoughts on “Elias Khoury: White Masks

  1. selena says:

    Every so often I feel like I need to read a hard book like this to remind myself of how hard things can be, and have gotten in our history.

    Sometimes I feel like I try to read away from that on purpose (up until a short while ago, I didn’t read about wars) – but it grounds me to read it. I hope that makes some kind of sense.

  2. Stujallen says:

    Having recently read his Yalo I agree with what your saying I found it very hard going and unremitting prose ,he certainly doesn’t hold back ,also love the archipelago books the are very nicely made ,all the best stu

  3. Trevor says:

    Selena, you make perfect sense. Some things are unpleasant to read about, though they should be. Others are unpleasant to read for other reasons, though, like because the actual prose and plot wear you down. That’s how I felt with this one, though it, too, turned out to be something I feel should be read.

    Stu, I heard Yalo was excellent, better than White Masks. I’d like to check it out someday, though I may have to recover some more first.

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