The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

“You make a man dis­ap­pear to si­lence him but also to nar­row the minds of those left be­hind, to per­vert their soul and limit their imag­i­na­tion. When Gaddafi took my fa­ther, he placed me in a space not much big­ger than the cell Fa­ther was in. I paced back and forth, anger in one di­rec­tion, ha­tred in the other … ’’

It was dif­fi­cult to pick an open­ing quote from The Re­turn, the as­ton­ish­ing, ag­o­nis­ing me­moir by Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, which we re­view on page 24. This re­mark­able book is full of beau­ti­ful, mov­ing, nec­es­sary writ­ing. It comes with jacket blurbs by Peter Carey, Hi­lary Man­tel, Colm Toibin and Zadie Smith, and it de­serves them. It is some­thing of a mas­ter­piece: har­row­ing to read and im­por­tant.

Matar was born in New York, where his fa­ther was a mem­ber of the Libyan del­e­ga­tion to the UN. The fam­ily re­turned to Tripoli when Matar was three. His ur­bane, in­tel­li­gent, lov­ing, mys­te­ri­ous fa­ther, Ja­balla Matar, worked to over­turn the regime of Muam­mar Gaddafi. In 1979, the fam­ily fled to Egypt. In 1986 the young Matar moved to Lon­don to con­tinue his stud­ies. In 1990, the elder Matar was kid­napped in Cairo and re­turned to Libya, to the no­to­ri­ous Abu Salim prison. His son was 19. The fam­ily did re­ceive some prison let­ters from Ja­balla but ev­ery­thing ended — and started — on June 29, 1996, when more than 1200 pris­on­ers were ex­e­cuted in­side the jail. They never heard from Ja­balla again, yet were un­able to con­firm his death. When Gaddafi was top­pled in 2011, Matar, then 40, de­cided to re­turn to his home coun­try to try to find out what hap­pened. It’s a quest for truth full of un­cer­tainty, and un­heal­able wounds. “My fa­ther is both dead and alive. I do not have a gram­mar for him,” he writes. “He is in the past, present and fu­ture. Even if I had held his hand, and felt it slacken, as he ex­haled his last breath, I would still, I be­lieve, ev­ery time I search for him, pause to search for the right tense.”

This is a deeply per­sonal story about the pain in­flicted on Matar and his ex­tended fam­ily. It’s ap­par­ent there were times he al­most couldn’t go on, in the two decades of not know­ing what had be­fallen his fa­ther. “There is a shame in not know­ing where your fa­ther is, shame in not be­ing able to stop search­ing for him, and shame also in want­ing to stop search­ing for him.”

The Re­turn is also a chron­i­cle of the abuse of a coun­try and its peo­ple, and some of the in­di­vid­ual sto­ries are hard to read: the mother who made a long trip, time and again, to see her son in Abu Salim but was not al­lowed past the guards. “Ev­ery month for five years she cooked meals and pur­chased gifts for a dead son. She wrote him let­ters … “

Matar’s debut novel, In the Coun­try of Men, set dur­ing the Gaddafi dic­ta­tor­ship, was short­listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. In this me­moir he brings a novelist’s un­der­stand­ing and ap­pre­hen­sion to a dark time in his life, and in our world’s re­cent his­tory. It’s one of the books of the year. Quote of the week: As sug­gested above, I’m a bit ad­dicted to read­ing book blurbs. Fol­low­ing is one that had me purring a lit­tle this week. “Very few peo­ple en­joy think­ing about the calami­tous prob­lem of free-roam­ing cats and bio­di­ver­sity, and even fewer dare to talk about it openly. [This] book is there­fore dou­bly wel­come. It’s not only im­por­tant read­ing for any­one who cares about na­ture. With its en­gag­ing sto­ry­telling, its calmly sci­en­tific ap­proach and its com­pas­sion­ate han­dling of a highly fraught is­sue, this is also a book a per­son might ac­tu­ally read for plea­sure.” I’m tempted to say guess the spruiker of Prince­ton University Press’s Cat Wars: The Dev­as­tat­ing Con­se­quences of a Cud­dly Killer, by Peter Marra and Chris San­tella, and I’ll re­veal the an­swer next week … but I’ll let it out of the bag to­day: it’s that cel­e­brated bird­watcher Jonathan Franzen, who writes novels in his spare time.

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