Actually, although I was fully immersed in the big screen experience I was also reading lots of books between films.
On the publication of his memoir, The Return, by Hisham Matar, I returned to his previous books on my shelves, two novels – In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance. I am not entirely sure whether it is appropriate to describe writing like this as lyrical, but I am going to chance it.
Hisham Matar has been an exile from his own country, Libya, since he was a small boy. Born in New York during a period when his father was in favour, he lived for a short while in Libya and then fled with all his close family to Egypt, leaving cousins and uncles behind at the mercy of the Qaddafi regime.
When he was still a young boy, his father was abducted from Egypt with the connivance of the authorities and taken to Libya and incarcerated in the dreaded, notorious prison Abu Salim. In this dreadful place were also his brothers and some of his nephews. The only way that they knew that he was there was that night after night he recited from memory reams of beautiful poems.
In fact, many people that Hisham Matar later interviewed in his endless search for what had happened to his father mentioned this nightly, comforting and exquisite recital.
At some point, though there is no proof of date or time or where, Jaballa Matar vanished.
The Return is about the search for information, and also about the moment when Qaddafi fell and the family: Hisham, his mother and his brother Ziad, returned to Libya; about the release of the remaining members of his family from Abu Salim and about the search for answers.
So why describe this writing as lyrical? The descriptions of the sea, the light, the sky in Libya are sublime, it is poetic and also the language of the exile. Lyrical, too, are the passages about meetings with family, many of whom had not seen Hisham since he was a small boy, shared meals and companionship in different houses. Again it is the scents, the light and the sense of realignment which seem to me to be covered by this term.
Clearly, the same cannot be said for the terrible description of the hardship and privation that was the experience of the prisoners in Qaddafi’s network of hidden prisons and torture chambers; but an equal level of descriptive power lies there however horrific. Overriding all the books is a plangent tone of loss, of uncertainty, of fear.
In the first novel, In the Country of Men, a nine year old boy lives in a family situation of secrets. His mother’s secret (since alcohol is forbidden) is that she is a drunk; his own interpretation is that she is ill, but to the practised ear it is clear what this illness is; his father, an importer of European goods, also has a secret. He is not always abroad when he says he is, which untruth Suleiman discovers one day while waiting for his mother by a plinth, he sees his father cross the square and enter a narrow house; but later on the same day, his father telephones home, and on being asked where he is, he says that he is abroad.
Suleiman also witnesses his neighbour being hurriedly bundled into a car, whereupon his friendship with the boy next door cools suddenly. Such is the nature of childhood loyalty – go with the flow; and this need to be helpful, liked and favoured leads Suleiman into a morass of duplicity and eventually betrayal.
This book came out in 2006 and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It is a deeply affecting and devastating novel, a story of love and betrayal, innocence and intrigue and it came out before it was widely known how very close the author was to the horrors unfolding in his home country.
By the time Hisham Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, was published in 2011 more information about his own life had appeared in the national press.
Nuri loses his mother at a very young age; the effect of this loss is spread-eagled over the whole novel. Nuri meets a young woman, Mona on the Alexandrian coast while on holiday and experiences his first feelings of love, imagine the emotional impact then when his father also falls in love with Mona and marries her.
His emotional turmoil turns in on himself though, because although he profoundly wishes for his father to get out of the way, when he does vanish one night in Switzerland he and his stepmother grow closer, and in their attempts to discover the truth they uncover a wealth of detail which makes them both wonder whether it is ever possible to know anyone, even someone as close as a father and husband.
This is a marvellously constructed novel, travelling through a trajectory of youth to manhood; of animosity to affection and at the same time having a slow reveal that is as surprising as it is affecting. It is hard to stop reading this book.
In all these books the sense of impending doom, the overwhelming sense of mystery and loss, of unfathomable mystery seem from the point of view of the young is presented in beautiful, spare, lucid prose. I am not sure at all in what order they should be read, but if all of them are on the TBR pile, I would start with The Return.