Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between
By Hisham Matar
It seems unfair to call Hisham Matar’s extraordinary new book a memoir, since it is so many other things besides: a reflection on exile and the consolations of art, an analysis of authoritarianism, a family history, a portrait of a country in the throes of revolution, and an impassioned work of mourning.
Matar’s father, Jaballa Matar, was a Libyan businessman who became, in the late 1970s, a prominent critic of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s dictatorship. After fleeing to Cairo, where he and his family lived for a decade, Matar was abducted by Egyptian security agents in 1990 and turned over to the Libyan regime. He was jailed in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, a notorious torture site, where approximately 1,270 prisoners were massacred in June 1996.
Whether Jaballa Matar was among them is impossible to know; despite an international campaign on his behalf, the Libyan regime never revealed his fate. He simply disappeared. “I envy the finality of funerals,” Hisham Matar writes in one of his memoir’s most moving passages. “I covet the certainty. How it must be to wrap one’s hands around the bones, to choose how to place them, to be able to pat the patch of earth and sing a prayer.”
This agonized family history is refracted in Matar’s previous two books, both novels. “In the Country of Men” (2006) is a child’s-eye view of the Libyan dictatorship, the story of how a father’s doomed rebellion is experienced by his wife and only child. “Anatomy of a Disappearance” (2011), a streamlined, noirish fiction, is centered on the tale of a father’s abduction and the son’s sexually fraught relation to his young stepmother.
“The Return” is a more mature and ultimately more satisfying book than either of the novels. It moves outside the claustrophobic triangle of family romance to include the stories of brothers, uncles and cousins, some of whose stories rival Jaballa Matar’s in their dreadfulness. Whereas “In the Country of Men” is constrained by Matar’s choice of a child protagonist (who, like many fictional children, is made to know things he surely cannot), the memoir gives free rein to his articulate and adult self.
In the spring of 2012, after Qaddafi had been overthrown by a popular uprising supported by international forces, Matar returned to Libya for the first time in 33 years. His memoir is set in this honeymoon of the revolution, the brief window between the dictatorship and the current civil war. “Anything seemed possible,” Matar writes of this hopeful interim, “and nearly every individual I met spoke of his optimism and foreboding in the same breath.”
In the memoir’s most rapturous passages, which recall Albert Camus’s essays on his Algerian childhood, Matar evokes his rediscovery of the Libyan landscape, the luminous Mediterranean coast and the austerity of the interior, where the earth “stood as all the unpeopled landscapes of Libya stand, clean and witnessing.” Dazzled by the light of Benghazi, Matar and his wife, the photographer Diana Matar, fantasize about spending part of their year in that city.
By the time Matar arrived, Libya’s prisons, including Abu Salim, had been emptied. The former captives, many from Matar’s own family, were free to tell their stories for the first time. Matar’s accounts of these talks are remarkable for their emotional rawness and acute insight. In his fiction as well as his nonfiction, Matar continually thrusts himself and his characters into situations of discomfort, speechlessness and trauma, all while maintaining a coolly analytic eye.
“It was an exchange of promises and devotion,” Matar writes of his encounters with former prisoners, “one colored, on their part, by the excitement of those who have survived an accident, and on mine, by the guilt of having lived a free life — guilt but also a stubborn shamelessness that, yes, I had lived a free life. In other words, our company provoked an assault of judgments inflicted by the self and therefore always possibly imagined.”
Matar’s “free life” was also, of course, a life lived in exile. His feelings of guilt in the face of his relatives’ suffering, as well as his rapt rediscovery of the native landscape, are characteristic attitudes of the émigré, as he well knows. The year before traveling to Libya, Matar taught a course at Barnard College on novels about exile and estrangement, and his memoir is punctuated by references to Homer and Dante as well as Joseph Brodsky and Vladimir Nabokov. In a particularly Nabokovian aperçu, he admits that what he calls “my bloody-minded commitment to rootlessness” was in fact a “feeble act of fidelity to the old country, or maybe not even to Libya but to the young boy I was when we left.”
These references are not mere displays of erudition; they form part of the book’s wider argument about finding solace in art when faced by tragedy. The chain of literary allusions is a reminder that the loss of one’s father — whatever the particular circumstances — is a universal fact, and that many writers have discovered their subject in the loss of home. Matar quotes the words of Telemachus, son of Odysseus, more than once: “I wish at least I had some happy man / as father, growing old in his own house — / but unknown death and silence are the fate / of him.”
Like many elegies, “The Return” is a text of carefully controlled rage. Periodically, the somber and somewhat decorous surface of Matar’s prose is ripped open by a brutal acknowledgment of anger and unappeased longing. After Libya gave up its nuclear program in 2003, Britain began to normalize relations with the country and Seif al-Islam, Qaddafi’s son, bought a house in Hampstead. “For several days after I heard the news,” writes Matar, who has lived for most of his adult life in London, “I had to drive away thoughts of knocking on the door and shooting him.”
“The Return” includes several chapters on Matar’s personal dealings with Seif al-Islam. As the progressive face of Qaddafi’s regime to the outside world — and persona grata with Britain’s political establishment — the dictator’s son promised to help Matar locate his father. These are among the most chilling pages of the memoir. The younger Qaddafi is at once violently unpredictable and coldly reptilian; he congratulates himself for his magnanimity in helping Matar, then forgets or breaks his promises. Despite his callous manipulation of Matar’s hopes, Qaddafi never gives up on the idea that he can seduce the exile back home.
Matar’s interest in authoritarian politics has less to do with its apparatus of repression, its surveillance of intellectuals or the psychology of charismatic leadership — traditional areas of scholarly and journalistic interest — and more with the way this style of politics makes itself felt in everyday life, in everything from hand gestures and ritual greetings to home décor and the relations between parents and children. In his attentions to these details, the province of realist fiction as well as memoir, Matar gives the reader an intimate sense of what living under a dictatorship feels like, rather than an account of how the system works.