“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.