The weekly literary supplement in our newspaper tipped me off to this book. Because of the current events in Libya and the fact that the author has a new book out (Anatomy of a Disappearance, published March 2011), there was a two page article on him. This novel was his first novel and I was lucky enough to be able to find it, in the original English, in our library.
Hisham Matar was born in 1970 in New York City, to Libyan parents. His father was a member of the Libyan delegation to the UN. When Hisham was three they moved back to Tripoli, where he spent his early childhood. In 1979 his father was accused of being against the Qaddafi regime and the family had to flee, to Egypt. He finished his secondary education in Cairo and then went to the UK for university studies in architecture.
In 1990, Matar's father was kidnapped in Cairo and has been missing ever since. Two letters the family received seem to indicate that his father was being held prisoner in Tripoli. The last news they had was that he had been seen alive in 2002.
Matar began writing In the Country of Men in 2000 and it was published in 2006, and nominated for the Booker Prize.
The novel is written in the first person from the point of view of Suleiman, a nine-year-old boy who lives with his young mother and older father in a residential area of Tripoli. He does not understand why his father disappears for days at a time, nor does he understand why his mother gets "sick" when his father is gone and drinks a foul smelling "medicine" she buys clandestinely from the baker. Suleiman is an observer and relates to us the smells, colors, and feelings he has in his daily life, while all around him the political situation creates a feeling of quiet menace and danger.
It is clear that Matar's own experiences and observations as a child for the basis for this book, and when you read the description of how Suleiman and his mother watch a neighbor tried and executed on Libyan television, it is obvious that something very similar was witnessed by the author, as it is impossible to imagine someone could make it up. The book is a fascinating window into how it was to live under the thumb of the Qaddafi regime.
At the same time, however, the book is a coming-of-age story of a young man who learns that his parents are not infallible, and how even though he escapes by moving to Egypt, there is always a link to his homeland because his family is still there. The book is also in part the story of Suleiman's mother and her oppression as a woman in a male-dominated society. There is a parallel to be found between the way Qaddafi oppresses the citizens of his country and the way the father and brothers of Suleiman's mother dominate and oppress her. She has no choice and behaves in the book like an animal cornered, self destructing through alcohol addiction as her only escape.
This is an extemely well-written book that opened my mind to a people who having been living for 42 years under oppression. It also reminded me how universal the job of being a mother is, and how difficult it is to get it right.