Sunday, December 4, 2011

Paint It White: Khoury’s White Masks

Elias Khoury’s White Masks, translated from the Arabic by Maia Tabet, is an intriguing book, a novel composed of narratives referencing aspects of the Lebanese civil war, told by people whose lives intersected with a murder victim found in a pile of garbage. The stories in White Masks felt both emotional and matter-of-fact, almost like confessions.

Khoury draws these disparate stories together using an old technique: a curious journalist conducts interviews. The journalist admits in his introduction and epilogue that readers may not value his efforts much. At the start, for example, he tells us, “The information I’ve been able to collect about the deceased is highly contradictory.” At the end, he tells us,

An astute reader will probably consider it a waste of time to read stories everyone knows about, while another kind of reader will think that there are better and more exciting stories than this one. And they’d both be right, and so would you, and so would each and every one of us… as likely as it could be your fault, it could be ours, it could be anyone’s, or everyone’s… And truth is indivisible, they say!

In my reading of White Masks, this all makes plenty of sense, except, of course “waste of time.” Storytellers aren’t reliable, all our stories repeat, war is hell, life and death are mysterious and unknowable, and every story told is somehow a truth.

The first interviewee, Noha Jaber, widow of Khalil Ahmad Jaber (the deceased), stresses stories near the start of her chapter, saying, “We’ve turned into a story, a tale people tell.” She later amends that, saying, “What can I tell you, we’d become a story, a mirror.” I thought Noha’s story was one of the most interesting in the book, with descriptions of her son, Ahmad, his death, and Khalil’s reactions: Khalil first hangs posters of Ahmad around town but later takes to erasing Ahmad’s face from newspaper clippings.

Other interviewees offer stories about their marriages, death at war and in the city, apocalyptic-sounding garbage piles, and more whitening and erasing. There’s also an autopsy report. And accounts of two men who lose body parts, an eye and an arm. Pain, loss, and chaos, both verbal and social, are the common threads in White Masks, and what sticks in my mind is a composite sound of keening and a picture of the erased face of a dead man, an emptiness that could be filled with another’s image.

I wrote at the start of this post that I found Khoury’s book “intriguing”… and I’m still not sure how else I’d describe it. It’s a book I never considered abandoning despite huge doses of pain and the thematic drawbacks the journalist himself mentions. A murder mystery with uncomfortable scenes that lacks a solution or a villain—war, unrest, and social decay feel horribly abstract and unsatisfying—doesn’t sound very appealing even if it reflects real life and death better than a detective novel where the killer gets a life sentence. I suspect I found in Khoury’s techniques—particularly his ordered literary chaos—an interesting and affecting counterpoint to my all-time favorite book, War and Peace, which, though a far happier book, also contains an artful mixture of order and disorder, war and home front, and twisted truths.

For more: Paul Doyle’s piece about White Masks on The Quarterly Conversation.

Up next: Milen Ruskov’s Thrown into Nature and Charles J. Shields’s And So It Goes, about Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I’m not big on biographies but this one sounded interesting, particularly given my love for Vonnegut’s books when I was a highschooler.

Disclosures: Thank you to Archipelago Books for the review copy and to Amy Henry, an Archipelago ambassador, for introducing me to Archipelago. I’m looking forward to reading my other Archipelago titles.

Image credit: Paks, via stock.xchng.

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