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.

When real life gets terrifying

Some Other Rainbow
by John McCarthy and Jill Morrell

When I was visiting my parents the other weekend, I spotted this on the bookshelves. I had been meaning to read it since my Mum bought it shortly after publication but somehow hadn’t got round to it. Since then I have become a fan of John McCarthy as the host of BBC Radio 4’s excellent programme Excess Baggage so I thought I would take a trip back to the events that made John a household name for a few years in my youth.

If you lived in Britain in the late 1980s/early 1990s you will know who John is but for everyone else, a quick summary. John went to Beirut in 1986 as part of his job as a TV news producer. He was supposed to work there for four weeks and then come home to his girlfriend Jill who he had left looking for a flat that they could buy together. Lebanon was in the midst of civil war at the time and westerners were being taken hostage but the situation had seemed to be getting better. Then, on the drive to the airport to fly home, John was kidnapped. He was held hostage for five years.

Though I lived through these events, I was quite young so a lot of the detail was either new to me or I had forgotten. It is an incredible story. The book is split so that John will narrate what happened to him over a certain time, then Jill will tell her story of that time. And while John’s story is inherently more interesting, some of the real shocks come from Jill’s side. It was not until his release that a political group claimed John as their hostage (Islamic Jihad, who actually released him as their envoy to the UN). There was no video or photograph of him sent home. In fact, for four years, until his fellow hostage Frank Reed was released, Jill had no way of knowing that he was alive.

There are so many details in this book that shook me hard. The hostages had to be blindfolded whenever the guards were within sight, which in some prisons meant all of the time. They were chained to the wall most of the time, with – if they were lucky – two trips a day to the bathroom. They were moved around a lot, staying in prisons anything from a few days to a year. And with each move they would not know who they would be with at the next location. Both guards and fellow prisoners would disappear and reappear.

John was fortunate not to be held alone after the first six weeks. For the majority of his captivity he shared a cell with Irish schoolteacher Brian Keenan. They formed a strong friendship and found ways to help each other cope. They also found innovative ways to communicate with prisoners in other rooms or cells (their prisons varied between houses, apartments, basements and purpose-built prisons). A moment that really got to me, after reading so much about John and Brian’s companionship, was when they heard knocking from the room next door and translated it as “My name is Terry Waite, I have been alone for over three years.”

Jill, in the meantime, had a lot of difficult decisions to make. She had to decide to what degree to get on with life, whether talking to the press (against Foreign Office advice) would help or hinder John (she had to weigh up the chance of John seeing her on TV or in the press, hopefully lifting his spirits, versus the risk of making him seem more valuable to his captors), whether to do her own investigations into the political situation (again, counter to FO advice). She made the decision, with many of John’s close friends, to campaign for his release. This was partly to keep him on the political agenda, so that deals would not be done with Middle Eastern countries without the hostages being mentioned. But it had the effect that, on his release, she was as much a celebrity as he was and there was a lot of press interest in their renewed relationship.

Both John and Jill had worked in journalism, though neither of them on the writing side, and that does show. Not that the book is at all badly written; rather that it is surprisingly conversational, open, honest but all grounded in the bare facts of what happened. Brian Keenan also wrote a book about his captivity, An Evil Cradling, which I read shortly after publication and found hauntingly beautiful. This is a very different take on the same events.

John is amazingly positive and cheerful, one of those people who is deeply affected by others’ troubles, so he takes great effort to learn how to help his fellow prisoners. He also reaches out to the guards and in some cases makes a connection, though it is never something that he can trust, as he can of course never forget that these men are keeping him like an animal, subject to occasional beatings and with his “belongings” (books, playing cards, dominoes, very occasionally a radio or television but they would usually be banned from listening to news) taken away on a whim. Jill is less cheery, but she makes up for this with incredible determination and brutal honesty about her darkest doubts.

A quick Google reveals that John later co-wrote a book with Brian Keenan, which I would very much like to read. But I also hope that I can go back to enjoying his Radio 4 show without picturing him locked in a dark concrete basement. It’s a horrid image and I have to contradict his statement that he is not a hero. He survived (and helped others to survive), he went on to live life, he is living proof of what the human spirit can endure if it must.

Published 1993 by Bantam Press.