Elias Khoury introduces this novel in a curious fashion, when his narrator confesses that 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.” He is forthcoming in admitting that the story bears no satisfying resolution. These initial disclaimers tease the reader into suspecting an undue modesty on the part of the author, perhaps even outright deception—suspicions that inevitably piques one’s interest. Such modesty would be admirable, if it didn’t turn out to be true.
White Masks is a technically adroit but ultimately unsatisfying book, whose weaknesses are hard to pinpoint but felt nevertheless. The novel opens with the discovery of Khalil Ahmad Jaber’s mutilated body in garbage heap in Beirut. An unnamed narrator, intrigued by the death, embarks on an investigative journey driven by vague motivations. After all, this is Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War in the early 1980s. There is plenty of unresolved and nonsensical death to go around. Why the death of an anonymous middle aged civil servant intrigues the narrator is never resolved, but who can account for the fixations of the mind? Who can begrudge nonsensical interest amidst the senselessness of Civil War?
After introducing the obscure circumstances of Jaber’s death, the unnamed narrator steps aside. What follows is a series of disconnected testimonies from individuals associated with the deceased to varying degrees (some to a very minor degree). We hear from Jaber’s wife, his daughter, the coroner, the garbage man who found him, a neighbor who reads of the murder in the paper, and a combatant who met him for ten minutes on his way to interrogation. Through their testimonies, we witness the victim’s descent into grief-stricken madness after the death of his son in combat. Posters of his son, a recognized martyr, are plastered throughout the city. At first, Jaber is concerned that his son’s visage will eventually come down from the walls, but as his grief intensifies, he changes tack. Rather than preserving his son’s memory, he attempts to erase it along with any other mark of the war. He begins by whiting out his son’s face in posters and family photos, and then moves to wandering the streets whitewashing war torn walls. The testimonies speak to this strange behavior but provide no account for it.
Nothing much gets resolved in the novel, and as such it lacks any sort of temporal arch, much less a denouement. Each chapter has a different narrator, with excellently rendered voices, who are all unreliable. Individually the chapters/testimonies can be quite beautiful, but as a whole, they stand alienated from each other. As a storytelling device, I’m all for multiple narrators that trace the network-like connections between different characters. But the whole must still end up greater than its parts. This is not the case here. Because the testifiers are only tangentially connected, Khoury makes use of abstract-like introductions of each that notes the testifiers’ relationship to the deceased are. This cumbersome artifice makes for a novel that reads like a collection of short stories carelessly thrown together or a frustrating dossier from an unsolved police investigation.
As testimonies of dubious trustworthiness accumulate, the information becomes more and more contradictory. Khoury keeps both the reader and his characters in a perpetual fog, both about the death and their own emotional reflexivity. This lack of resolution, while satisfying on an intellectual level as it underscores the absurdity of war, leaves one cold. Khoury’s commitment to solving the mystery is never very strong; his real (and transparent) goal is to use the death to provide a kaleidoscopic view of Beirut mired in the Civil War. Yet without the emotional anchor of the death or the intrigue of the mystery, this panorama of tragedy comes across as strangely unmoving and almost uninteresting. The reader is told about suffering but never feels it. Perhaps this is intentional. Perhaps Khoury is merely trying to reproduce the sense of numbness that emerges from war’s meaninglessness. And indeed, the one trait unifying this disparate group of testifiers is their defensive apathy toward this harsh reality. But lacking an emotional connection to these testifiers, or even the deceased, the tragedy of this indifference never comes across. Instead, Khoury gives us a clinical and detached portrayal of tragedy, unsettling in its incompleteness. As the characters discover, there’s a certain futility in trying to account for a single death in a city amidst civil war. Unfortunately for the reader, there’s also a certain futility in reading about it.
This is not to suggest that the novel is without its strengths. Khoury’s perceptive sympathy for Beirut comes through palpably, especially when he writes of its destruction. “Even with all the shelling and the fighting,” Beirut comes across as a beautiful place. Khoury also renders the complex gender politics of cosmopolitan Muslim families with great nuance, especially in his portrayal of strong, but disappointingly deferential, female characters. White Masks offers the reader additional insight into the foreign culture of cosmopolitan Islamism (especially when he teases out the subtleties of martyrdom), a refreshing antidote to the caricatures of the post 9/11 era.
As is probably clear from this review, the novel induces ambivalence. Asked if I would recommend it, I can’t honestly give an answer (which is perhaps a lack of recommendation in and of itself). At most, I might recommend another of Khoury’s novels, though I have never read them. His prose is hypnotic and his ability to bring Beirut to tragic life is compelling. White Masks may simply be a case of a lesser work of a great novelist. I’m not sure, but I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to finding out.