Monday, May 05, 2008

In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar (2006)

I don't think I have ever read any books set in Libya before. I doubt I would have read this one had it not been shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2006: it was sitting on the shelf in the library, so I picked it up. As it happens, I have now finally read the entire 2006 shortlist.

It is a fairly simple story, nothing flamboyant about the writing style, a little bit lightweight to be honest: nothing really grabbed me about it until very near the end. The narrator is Suleiman, a nine year old boy at the time of the action (which is set ten years into Qaddafi's regime, with no end in site). Much of the tale could have been anywhere - stuff about his relations with his parents (mum is ever present, dad is a far more shadowy figure) and his school friends, with their shifting allegiances.

One significant difference is the story of his mother: married off at the age of 14 after her brother dobbed her in for talking to a boy. Very little is said about relations between her and her husband: all we are really told is that she's drinking an awful lot of "medicine", the kind that comes from the baker and is illegal. The worse things get, the more she drinks and the more she tells Suleiman.

The other major thread to the narrative is the ever present threat of Qaddafi's regime: the neighbour has recently been taken and is seen being interrogated and than hanged on public TV. Who knows whether Suleiman's dad has ever actually done anything: all know it is inevitable his turn will come. The odd thing is that when it does, he actually returns (the only time he and his wife seem to be happy together and she doesn't drink). Is he "innocent" (whatever that might mean in Qaddafi's Libya) or has he done some deal, turned someone in to ensure his release? What nature of man is he? This is left entirely ambiguous. All we know is that at the age of 48, he apparently cracks, reads a forbidden book in public: "Had he come to prefer death over slavery, unlike my Scheherazade, refusing to live under the sword?"

As parents, they had earlier faced difficult choices: too what extent are they to insulate their son from the horrors around them? One problem in doing so is that he might get too friendly with the watching secret police. Although they could not leave, should they take the chance to send their only child abroad, to Egypt? He fits readily in to his new life, and it is only really as an adult that he can say
I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss... Egypt has not replaced Libya. Instead, there is this void, this emptiness I am trying to get at like someone frightened of the dark, searching for a match to strike. I see it in others, this emptiness... How readily and thinly we procure these fictional selves, deceiving the world and what we might have become if only we hadn't got in the way, if only we had waited to se what might have become of us.

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