This novel is about an author’s incredible restraint. Hisham Matar, who has in real life suffered a publicly documented tragedy – the loss and disappearance of his father – doesn’t in 246 pages mention the word Libya, the true source of his grief and misery. Easily, he can blame, accuse and point the finger; but rather, Matar in this novel reclaims the personal, ignores the current political and rises above the sordid history.
Insisting his work is fictional, an adolescent Nuri loses his mother first and after experiences the unusual vanishing of his father. Alongside, there is a racy and competitive love triangle interwoven in the tale – between father, son and the amorous interest Mona.
Though one is transported to the background cities of Alexandria, Egypt, Geneva, Switzerland, Paris, France and London, England, the protagonist’s country of origin is only referred to as a place of waterfalls, pomegranates and palm trees. Matar also cleverly fabricates the political tale: “Our King was dragged to the courtyard of the palace and shot in the head.”
Throughout, Nuri struggles to make sense of his life, his young sexuality and unusual family circumstances. Living at first in exile with his father, he is clearly in the shadows of the man who holds incredible charm and intellect, wealth and a certain political persuasion. But after there is also a great betrayal.
After the father’s disappearance, there is even more anguish, confusion, loss and the sense of unrequited grief: “Relatives and neighbours who might have filled the chairs in the hall if father had died were silent in the face of his disappearance.”
Not to spoil the intricate plot that is well paced and engaging, I recommend this book over Matar’s first – “In the Country of Men.” This one flows much better and reads as a stream of poetic consciousness. But the fine line between fact and fiction is taken to the limits once more. Maybe Matar wants to be timeless. But, as the voice of the father, Kamal Pasha el-Alfi, says: “You can’t live outside history. We have nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary!”
Note: This article was first published circa March 2012