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Book Review

In The Country of Men by Hisham Matar

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Publisher: Penguin

1 of 1 Hisham Matar's superb first novel has been translated into 28 languages.
Hisham Matar's superb first novel has been translated into 28 languages.

“I was moved and very impressed,” says Roddy Doyle of Hisham Matar. “Each time I had to put it down I couldn’t wait to get back to it,” enthused Michael Frayn about his work. Anatomy of a Disappearance is Hisham Matar’s second novel,first published in 2011, and recently published as a Penguin paperback.

In The Country of Men - the stronger of the two, it has to be said - was first published in 2006. The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize of that year, for the Guardian First Book, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the US. It won six international literary awards, including Commonwealth Writers Best First Book Award, and has been translated into 28 languages.

So how come you (very possibly) haven’t heard about these novels that were both written in English, by an author who was born in New York in 1970? Whatever about the possible answers, Matar’s In The Country of Men certainly deserves to be much better known.

It's a nuanced story of 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 differerent relationship with his frequently absent father, it is tender and moving.

The reader gets a piquant sense of people trying to lead normal lives, 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 certain cultural flirtation with Italy, on the other side of the Mediterranean. Suleiman’s father is a buyer and seller of goods, he 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 the 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 may be 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 constant mantra, and the late colonel is commonly known as “The Guide.” His full title in fact is our Leader, the Guide, the Saviour of the Nation, our Great Teacher and Benefactor, the Father of The Great El-Fateh of September Revolution, Muammar El Qadaffi. His image is on permanent display in houses, businesses and restaurants, the bigger the image the better. Meanwhile, there is the dreaded secret service, the Mokhabarat to contend with, some of whose members have been trained by the KGB in Moscow

 As depicted in In The Country of Men, Gadafy has the ability to control the broadcast of the state television services with an on-off switch. 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 friend,the art professor Ustah Rashid on the TV. He has been recently detained by the Revolutionary Guard and is being asked to name so-called fellow "traitors". The bruises would be on his body, but not on his face, reflects Suleiman. He hears the loyal neighbour's one-word utterance, “No” as he refuses to declare that Suleiman’s father, also named Suleiman - affectionately, Baba - is a traitor.

The call to prayer,  through the crackle of the mosque speaker, and constant quotation from the Koran are features of both Matar novels.

In The Country of Men, also affords a fascinating insight into the position of women in Libya, half a century ago. His 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. Young Suleiman feels deeply for his mother because of this injustice which she has endlessly laments.

Ustath Jafer, a senior member of the Mokhabarat, is the neighbouring official with whom mother and son must intercede when Baba 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 fathers are at, 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 and living in Cairo, technically an "evader", who has 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 a thriller, dealing once again with a missing father. The story is set in Cairo, in rather soulessly-evoked cities of London, Montreux and Geneva. 

We are in vaguely similar terrain to John Banville’s current novel Ancient Light. 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 his next work with some anticipation, and hope that its locale will be Tripoli or Cairo. Matar just seems much better when he is giving us his North Africa.

Paddy Kehoe

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