In The Country Of Men by Hisham Matar
The Dial Press, New York, 2007
Borrowed from the library. Shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.
I found this a very timely read. In Libya in 1979, 9 year-old Suleiman is enjoying all the pleasures of childhood. Games with friends, visits to ancient ruins and the joy of greeting his father returning from many business trips. When his father is away his mother is often “ill”, something he felt troubled by and responsible for.
Mama and I spent most of the time together – she alone, I unable to leave her. I worried how the world might change if even for a second I was to look away, to relax the grip of my gaze. I was convinced that if my attention was applied fully, disaster would be kept at bay and she would return whole and uncorrupted, no longer lost, stranded on the opposite bank, waiting alone. But although her unpredictability and her urgent stories tormented me, my vigil and what I then could only explain as her illness bound us into an intimacy that has since occupied the inner most memory I have of love. If love started somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love. from pages 20-21.
One day Suleiman sees his father crossing a public square and entering a building when he was supposed to be on a business trip. The boy notices people following his mother’s car. His best friend’s father has been taken away. He is trying to make sense of what is happening around him but that is impossible for this child. He is living 10 years into the reign of Muanmar el-Qaddafi.
Matar writes beautifully, expressing the thoughts of nine-year-old Suleiman, his friends and the adults that surround him. It is the voice of Najwa, Suleiman’s mother, that I found most compelling. She tells stories, much like Scheherezade, and yet she has little patience for the mythic storyteller calling her a coward and a slave. She had been forced into a life, unable to make her own choices.
Sometimes she would say, “All you men,” “All you men are the same, ” combining me not only with Baba but with many other men. I never knew what to say to that. I couldn’t possibly defend all of them: all her brothers and her father – the men she called the “High Council” – the men who met to decide her fate when she was only fourteen, after she was seen sitting across from a boy in the Italian Coffee House. And all the other men who met at the Italian Coffee House, where talk started and things were decided. from page 144.
It is clear to me that Hisham Matar is aware of the struggle for women’s equality alongside the struggle for democracy in his home country. Here is a link to an NPR interview with the author on the power of Libyan fiction.