Sunday, March 20, 2011

libyan writer hisham matar's extraordinary times

Novelist Hisham Matar illuminates Libyan realities

These are extraordinary times for the Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, a long-time resident of London. The publication this month in the UK of his second novel “Anatomy of a Disappearance” had aroused much anticipation among critics and readers. What could not have been predicted was that publication of the novel would coincide with an uprising in Libya that offered the tantalizing prospect of an end to the 42-year-rule of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

Matar’s novel has had an overwhelmingly positive reception and has received a slew of favorable reviews. In the past four weeks the author has been extensively interviewed in the media on the situation in Libya and on his fiction. He has also written a number of articles for the international media, calling in a New York Times Op-Ed for the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Libya and to provide food and medical supplies to rebel-held areas.

Matar’s describes his apartment in London as a news hub. He has been making up to 50 phone calls a day to doctors, relatives and others in Libyan cities and towns in an effort to gather and circulate accurate information.

Matar says that as a novelist he feels useless in the current uprising: “I don’t think I’m nearly as useful as a baker in Benghazi right now, or a doctor, or a nurse.” But there is no doubt that at a time of national crisis people look to writers to provide a different perspective and inner knowledge. Even if Matar’s novels are not strictly autobiographical or political, they illuminate realities of Libya.

Matar emerged as a major new literary talent in 2006 with his debut novel “In the Country of Men”. The novel was shortlisted for Britain’s premier literary award the Man Booker Prize, and for the Guardian First Book Award, and won several international literary prizes. Written in English, it has been translated into 28 languages including Arabic.

“In the Country of Men” is set in Tripoli in 1979. Its main protagonist is nine-year-old Suleiman whose father is involved in an underground pro-democracy movement. The boy tries to make sense of the events he observes around him, including the capture and torture of his father. The novel lays bare the corrosive effects of dictatorship on social and family relations.

In his second novel Matar explores the repercussions of the “disappearing” of an Arab political dissident. The man is kidnapped in Geneva, Switzerland, presumably by elements working for the regime of his home country. As in his first novel, the father-son relationship is central.

The “disappearing” of a dissident father is something Matar has lived through himself. He was born in 1970 in New York where his father Jaballa was a diplomat, and spent his childhood in Libya. But in 1979, after his father fell out with the Libyan regime, the family left for exile in Egypt. In 1990 Jaballa Matar was “disappeared” from Cairo.

The family heard nothing from Jaballa until two letters from him, written in Libya’s Abu Salim prison, were smuggled to them in 1992 and 1995. In the letters he revealed that he had been seized initially by Egyptian agents and handed over to the Libyan authorities. Nothing further has been heard from him, and his family feared he might have been killed in the massacre of 1,200 prisoners at Abu Salim prison in 1996. But last year Hisham disclosed that the family’s hopes had been raised by someone who had said he had seen Jaballa in a secret political prison in Tripoli in 2002.

From the first sentence of “Anatomy of a Disappearance” we feel the impact on Nuri of the vanishing of his father in 1972 when Nuri was 14: “There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.”

Matar’s prose is spare and suggestive and his novel is a compelling read. He builds up an atmosphere of unease and tension as Nuri tries to piece together the secrets of his family through clues and half-remembered whispers that make sense only years later. One mystery is why his father was in the bedroom of a woman when he was seized.

The home country of Nuri’s wealthy father Kamal Pasha el-Alfi is never identified, although Matar drops several hints. Nuri reads in books that his father had been a close adviser to “the young king”, and was an aristocrat who after the revolution moved “gradually but with radical effect” to the left.

The details of Kamal’s back story are not the important thing: Matar set out in his novel to meditate on a state of unresolved grief and asks how well we know our fathers. Nuri feels that even before his disappearance, his father lacked “a kind of emotional eloquence and ease” towards him. Following the death of his mother when he is 10, he receives affection from the devoted servant Naim who has been with the family since her early teens.

When Nuri is 12 he and his father spend the summer at a hotel in Alexandria where they meet a half-Egyptian, half-English young woman named Mona. Matar brilliantly conveys Nuri’s confusing adolescent passion for Mona and his pain as he observes the growing closeness between her and his father. After Mona and Kamal marry, Nuri is packed off to boarding school in England but his obsession with Mona persists. Nuri comes across as a lonely, defensive individual, locked in his past and suffering the continuing pain of his father’s absence without knowing his fate.

Matar was invited to the Mosaic Rooms at the A M Qattan Foundation, central London, a few days ago for a discussion with filmmaker and Foundation trustee Omar Qattan. Mary Mount, Matar’s editor at Penguin Viking, introduced the packed-out event. She said: “It is extremely rare these days to find a writer who seems both timeless and yet able to shed a light on the very specific times in which we live. ‘Anatomy of a Disappearance’ is a novel that is extraordinarily controlled, beautifully written, and haunts the reader at the deepest possible level.”

Asked about his approach to writing, Matar said: “I don’t know the whole story when I start.” In the case of his new novel, he had started with a powerful feeling for the character of Nuri. “I thought he was sitting just out of view, and could almost sense his presence. I was motivated by that curiosity ... at some stage in the writing what becomes exciting is not just knowing him but testing him.”

When asked if he is hopeful about Libya, Matar said: “Hope is usually spoken about as a positive thing: I actually propose hope as a negative thing. Hope has a weight to it, a burden to it. Living in hope seems to me a kind of tragic condition.” The exciting thing about Libya is that while there is hope, “there is more importantly a sense of possibility that did not exist before – it’s as if the horizon just went much further than before.”

He continued: “Suddenly people are speaking about what sort of society we want – and speaking about it not in an abstract sense but in a very real sense. Democracy is not a hypothetical notion any more, it’s a reality, a necessity.”

He acknowledged that new technologies such as Facebook and Twitter have helped the pro-democracy movement. But he thought that what is missing in some explanations of recent events in Libya is the “rediscovery of the old myths... Suddenly you realize that you can’t have a country without mythology, and that in times like these people need to lean on those old myths.”

The rediscovery of Libyan national identity includes the sense that “we have been fighting fascism for the last 100 years.” Young Libyans facing Gaddafi’s tanks shout a battle cry that translates as “welcome to paradise, there she comes”. Matar pointed out that these are the same words that members of the Libyan resistance against Mussolini would shout when confronting Italian tanks and pointing their Ottoman guns at them.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 20 March 2011

Author pic below by Diana Matar


Karen said...

Hi there, I liked your review of Hisham Matar’s ‘In the Country of Men’ and wondered whether you might be interested in asking Hisham Matar a question about this book? BBC World Book Club on the World Service is interviewing him soon and would love to hear from you. If interested, please email me at as soon as you can with a question about the book (anything - doesn't have to be particularly clever!), along with where you’re from/live. We can either arrange for you to talk to Hisham Matar himself, or have our presenter put your question to him for you. Then you will be able hear your question on BBC World Service Radio when it airs.
Best wishes,
BBC World Book Club

Anonymous said...

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