08 November 2007

In the Country of Men (Hisham Matar)

Hisham Matar’s debut novel, In the Country of Men, has been vaunted as “[o]ne of the most brilliant literary debuts of recent years”; as “exquisite”, “outstanding” and “masterly”. While I wouldn’t venture quite that far, I would certainly draw attention to its magnificent writing and to the achingly honest portrayal of a Libya trapped in terror.

Nine-year-old Suleiman lives with his parents in golden Tripoli, 10 years after Moammar Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution. There, he tries to reconcile the things he understands (sesame sticks, football and mulberries) with the things he doesn’t: secret police, clandestine agitators, intimidation and torture, televised trials and hidden addictions:

“I returned to the television. The screen was covered now in a still photograph of pink flowers. This was the picture that meant the broadcast was temporarily interrupted. I heard it said that the Guide [Gaddafi] had a switch in his sitting room, beside his television set, so that whenever he saw something he didn’t like he flicked the flowers on.”

And a little time later, Gaddafi’s Revolutionary Committee has Suleiman’s own family in its sights. His father is accused of political dissidence and vanishes “like a grain of salt in water”, his mother falls apart, and the boy’s fragile psyche begins to tremble under the combined weight of lies, fear, mistrust, betrayal, grief – and childhood itself.


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