In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
Since the escalation of political unrest in Libya recently, the author of this 2006 Booker shortlisted novel has been in demand to comment about living under Gaddafi – something he is particularly well placed to do. His own family fled Libya for Egypt in 1979, and his father, a former UN diplomat and political dissident was kidnapped in 1990 in Cairo, while Matar was studying in London and Hisham has not seen him since. (source Wikipedia).
In the Country of Men is narrated by Suleiman looking back at the summer of 1979 when he was nine years old. That was to be the summer when he was exposed to the terror of living under a tyrannical regime, finding out that his father wasn’t a businessman but something to him that’s more sinister, for at nine, Suleiman cannot comprehend the secrecy and strain that being an active political dissident puts on the family.
Suleiman, one day, sees his father at the window of a house in town when he was meant to be abroad travelling. He can’t believe his father has lied to him, and this will prove damaging to their relationship. His mother, who was forced into marriage with his father, seeks solace in her ‘medicine’, obtained under the counter from the baker, and in her drunken stupor tells Suleiman about her early years. Then he has to stop playing with his best friend Kareem, whose father is taken away one afternoon on suspicion of treason …
The car pulled over in front of Kareen’s house. Kareem froze, as if his heart had dropped into his shoes. Four men got out, leaving the doors open. The car was like a giant dead moth in the sun. Three of the men ran inside the house, the fourth, who was the driver and seemed to be their leader, waited on the pavement. He smiled at the two fat brothers Masoud and Ali. I didn’t register then that he knew them. None of use had seen him before. He had a horrible face, pockmarked like pumice stone. His men reappeared, holding Ustath Rashid between them. He didn’t struggle. Auntie Salma trailed behind as if an invisible string connected her to her husband. The man with the pockmarked face slapped Ustath Rashid, suddenly and ferociously. It sounded like fabric tearing, it stopped Auntie Salma…
… Ustath Rashid looked towards us, and when his eyes met Kareem’s, his face changed. He looked like he was about to cry or vomit. Then he doubled over and began to cough. The men seemed not to know what to do. They looked at each other, then at Auntie Salma, who had one hand over her mouth, the other clasped around her braided hair that fell as thick as an anchor rope over her shoulder. They grabbed Ustath Rashid, threw him into the car, slammed the doors shut and sped between us, crushing our goal posts. I couldn’t see Ustath Rashid’s head between the two men sitting on either side of him in the back seat; he must have been coughing still.
The rumours start to fly, and everyone lives in fear that their family will be next to be accused of treason – there is a complex web of betrayals and back-scratching toadying. In this poisonous atmosphere, Suleiman becomes fascinated by Sharief, the pockmarked abductor who starts watching his father’s house – and you know no good can come of it.
Matar is an extremely eloquent writer. There are some wonderful descriptions – The car was like a giant dead moth in the sun, yet when he has to, he can be brutal and matter of fact – in describing a hanging for instance. The relationships between the boys, Suleiman and his friends are encapsulated by their games of oneupmanship and casual but hurtful joshing. The book creates a vivid and sad picture of growing up under Gaddafi’s regime, and it was hard to believe that this is Matar’s first novel. Highly recommended. (8.5/10)
When I was at the Penguin blogger’s evening, I met Hisham, and heard him read from his new book, Anatomy of a disappearance. After that event and reading Dovegreyreader’s glowing review, I snagged a copy and am very much looking forward to reading it.
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