Khoury’s novel is a patchwork quilt of a book; a murder mystery with the mystery stripped back as far as possible and the murder itself reduced to the role of an accomplice. Because this isn’t a novel about a murder; it’s a novel about a society, the society within which the murder occurred. Khoury, going against all the rules of the genre, isn’t really interested in the murder; he’s interested in what war and sectarianism can achieve, how they can tear the social fabric asunder. Each of White Mask’s 7 chapters, apart from the first, narrated by the victim’s widow, offers a tangential take on the life and death of Khalil Ahmad Jaber, a civil servant who starts to lose his mind after his favourite son is killed fighting. An architect, a blinded soldier; a doctor; a widowed mother, among others, all are granted their opportunity to tell us what they know about Khalil, but more than that, to tell us about themselves and the way their lives have been transformed by the civil war. Thus, voice by voice, chapter by chapter, the writer constructs his quilt, revealing the values and the desperation of his Beirut.
After reading Khoury’s Yalo, I realised it was one of the few books I’ve come across that offered some kind of insight into what’s occurring now in Syria. You can glean all you want from non-fiction; you can watch documentaries; you can feel informed. But you can’t know what it is to live there, how daily life functions, the compromises that have been forced upon people merely in order to survive. Only literature can begin to achieve that.
Neither Yalo nor White Masks deal with Syria: both are novels that address the dreadful, seemingly endless Lebanese civil war which was part of the backdrop of my own youth. However, without going into the political history of the region, to find parallels between Syrian and Lebanese society is not that much of a stretch. These books might have been written about a war which ended over thirty years ago, but the societies are similar, as is the gruesome nature of the civil wars which both countries have endured. Khoury’s writing retains its immediacy and importance; there are few sources as valuable as his novels for understanding the decades of strife and conflict which continue to afflict the Middle East.