I do not see him in the mirror but feel him

Anatomy of a Disappearance
by Hisham Matar

This short, quick read effectively covers a devastating subject: the loss of a parent. And somehow it manages to be about everything else as well: love, family, identity, growing up and lust.

It is this last that the book might seem to be centred around. The story is narrated by Nuri who is 14 when his father mysteriously disappears, never to be found. Born in Paris, raised in Cairo, Nuri’s family are outsiders, Arabs, from an unnamed other country suffering military dictatorship. Nuri’s father was a government adviser to their king so they are now effectively in exile. After the death of Nuri’s mother when he is 10, the father and son struggle to communicate until one summer they meet Mona, a half-British half-Egyptian beauty aged exactly between them. Father and son both fall in lust but of course it is the father she responds to and marries while 12-year-old Nuri is in torment.

Nuri, like most teenage boys, struggles desperately with his lustful feelings, which are complicated by Mona’s flirtatious behaviour with him and then, later, his father’s absence. Though there are so many other things going on in his life that he could fixate on (boarding school in England; his so-called mother country; his struggle to make friends), in this narrative at least it is Mona who takes centre stage for most of the story. It is only when he gets older that he straightens out his priorities and makes an attempt to look for his father and make a life for himself.

The story is simply told, with what might believably be a young man’s voice recalling his childhood and teenage years and their raw pain. Though the setting moves all over the world, nowhere is strongly evoked except his own mind. While it was beautifully, sparsely done, I couldn’t help but wish for something that had gone deeper. Perhaps follow the adult searches a little and the politics that that might dredge up. But that would be a very different book.

My only other difficulty with this book was that Nuri’s family is so extremely well off, that outside his family, life is made very easy for him. We never see him get a job or struggle for something to do in holidays from his boarding school when he does not feel comfortable staying with Mona. I know this might be petty but I might have sympathised a little more if he was scraping together the funds to go to Switzerland to search for his father.

Not naming the “mother country” is, I would guess, an attempt to distance the fictional story from the author’s true life experience. Matar’s family fled their native Libya to Egypt following political persecution and when he was 20 his father was kidnapped. For many years Matar did not know whether his father was alive or dead. All that must, of course, have informed his writing but in Nuri he has created a believable separate character from himself.

I think I would say I was not as bowled over by this as by Matar’s debut novel In the Country of Men but I would still rank him as an excellent writer to keep an eye on.

First published 2011 by Viking.

What you do to survive

In the Country of Men
by Hisham Matar

I got this book as part of an event at the Oxford Literary Festival in 2006. Penguin Books had won a bidding war over it and was therefore keen to promote this talented debut author. I think perhaps the big promotional push put me off. Certainly, it wasn’t until I started to hear about Matar’s second novel, published earlier this year, that I became interested enough to pick it up.

Of course, it’s now timely because Matar is Libyan and was writing here about the early days of Qaddafi’s rule…in fictional form. Young man Suleiman looks back on the summer of 1979, when he was nine years old and became aware that his father’s disappearances were not always business trips, and his mother’s sadness was more complicated than feeling lonely when her husband was away.

Child Suleiman is a bit of a dreamer. In his head he is the romantic hero of the Arabian Nights and will grow up to be a jetsetting art dealer. In reality he finds that it is far too easy to do what he is told and then regret it later.

This is a beautiful, well told story. There were times when I was surprised by Suleiman’s actions or his reaction to other people, and I had to remind myself that this was a nine year old boy, with a simplified view of the world that is straining under the weight of all that is happening around him. He’s confused and angry and trying desperately to be the good boy he was raised to be, which isn’t easy when “good” is a relative term.

The narrative device of older Suleiman looking back allows Matar to inject a little history and hindsight into the story but this never gets heavy-handed. For a book about awful, weighty subjects (and it’s really not just in the background), this is an accessible, gripping read.

First published 2006 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books. Shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2006.

UPDATE: See also the Guardian Books podcast with Hisham Matar (mostly talking about his new book, Anatomy of a Disappearance, but also touching on this one) and the World Book Club episode featuring Matar discussing this book (click on the link and scroll to September 2011).