“I was moved and very impressed,” says Roddy Doyle of the work of Hisham Matar, the celebrated Libyan writer, born 1970, who writes in English. “Each time I had to put it down I couldn’t wait to get back to it,” enthused Michael Frayn about one of his pair of novels to date. Anatomy of a Disappearance, Hisham Matar’s second novel was first published in 2011, and recently issued as a Penguin paperback.
In The Country of Men - the stronger of the two - appeared in 2006, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, for the Guardian First Book, and the the US National Book Critics Circle Award. It won six international literary awards, including Commonwealth Writers Best First Book Award, and has been translated into 28 languages.
In The Country of Men describes life in the Libyan capital of Tripoli in 1979, as told by the precocious, observant nine-year old Suleiman. In its depiction of intimate, if complicated love, between the boy protagonist and his mother, and the very different relationship with his frequently absent father, it is tender and moving.
The reader gets a piquant sense of people trying to lead normal lives as best they can while enduring the tension of living on the wrong side politically during the early days of Colonel Gadaffy’s Revolution. The suburb in which young Suleiman grows up enjoys a cultural flirtation with Italy, on the other side of the Mediterranean. Suleiman’s father is a buyer and seller of goods, who imports cows from Scotland on one memorable occasion, and trees from Sweden.
Like Amit Chaudhuri's depiction of middle class life in Bombay in The Immortals - another captivating novel told from a privileged young boy’s perspective - Matar conjures a sensual, exotic world, including too the wealth of culinary detail. “The whole kitchen was alive with the smell of parsley, lemon and cardamon,” he writes. Suleiman pours tea at one point, and “the steam (is) pungent with mint and sage.”
The dissident elements in Tripoli's middle class endure constant phone surveillance – maybe that is because they actually have phones. Family members are obliged to make humiliating interventions on behalf of fathers or husbands. Friends in high places are necessary, but may not necessarily save you.
“Long Live Gadafy” is the mantra and the leader's image is on permanent display in houses, businesses and restaurants, the bigger the better. The Mokhabarat is the dreaded secret service, KGB-trained in some instances. Gadafy has the ability to control the broadcast of the state television services with an on-off switch. Meanwhile, interrogations - and indeed the occasional public hanging in a thronged National Basketball Stadium - are aired on TV.
At one point, Suleiman tunes in to see his father’s professor friend on TV, recently detained by the Revolutionary Guard and now being asked to name "traitors". The bruises would be on his body, but not on his face, reflects Suleiman and he hears the loyal neighbour's one-word utterance, “No” as he refuses to declare that Suleiman’s father, also Suleiman, is a so-called `traitor.' The call to prayer, heard through the crackle of the mosque speaker, and constant quotation from the Koran are features of both Matar novels.
In The Country of Men affords a fascinating insight into the position of women in Libya, half a century ago. Suleiman's mother was forcibly married because she was seen in "mixed company," holding hands with a young boy at the Italian Coffee House in Tripoli. The fourteen-year old girl was locked in her room for 30 days while the family searched for a suitable groom.
Ustath Jafer, a senior member of the Mokhabarat, is the neighbouring official with whom mother and son must intercede when Suleiman senior goes missing. Matar skillfully interweaves the parallel adult and childhood strands to make an impressive whole - the sinister police state and the young boys on the street, only dimly aware of what their activist fathers are up to, behind the scenes.
At the end of the novel, the narrative moves forward in time to the present life of Suleiman in the mid-1980s. He is now 24, living in Cairo, having avoided military service by fleeing Tripoli.
When it gets into its stride, the second of Matar’s pair of novels, Anatomy of a Disappearance becomes not much more than a sophisticated thriller, dealing once again with a missing father, but somehow without the political heft that informs In The Country of Men.
The story is set in Cairo, London, Montreux and Geneva. After his mother’s death, 12-year old Nuri becomes obsessed with Mona, who is being courted by his father. When young Nuri meets Mona, his father is 41. “Fifteen years separated them, and fourteen separated her from me,” declares Nuri. His mother’s death has been relatively recent, the funeral arrangements, the friends and relatives calling to sympathise are described with great sensitivity by Matar. One feels a profound sense of loss in the young boy, as, plausibly enough, he falls for another woman, albeit the one who would become his stepmother.
Father, son, and new wife take a trip to Luxor, swimming off the boat as it cruises along the Nile, the newly-weds ostentatiously speaking French, English and Arabic to each other. Like Suleiman in the earlier novel, Nuri is unusually perceptive. “What I then took for adoration was Mona’s fancy to be adored,” he notes at one point. The earlier part of the novel is full of such elegant, pithy observations, it's just a pity that the energy seems to flag as the tale progresses. We await Matar's next work with some anticipation, and hope that its locale will be Tripoli or Cairo. Matar just seems much better when he is dealing with the home front.