Hisham Matar, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (Viking 2016)
Wikipedia describes Hisham Matar as a Libyan novelist. Actually, it’s more complex than that: he’s a British citizen, born in the USA, who spent six childhood years in Libya before being exiled with his immediate family to Egypt. But despite these complexities he is Libyan, deeply invested in the history, culture and fortune of that country. This wonderful book is built around his return there during the brief window of peace and hope after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011. Matar’s father, Jaballa Matar, an influential political dissident, was kidnapped in 1990, never to be seen again by his family. Hisham, 19 years old and studying in London at the time of the kidnap, spent the next two decades trying to find out what happened to his father, and working for the release of his uncle and cousins who had been arrested at the same time.
As the story of the author’s visit to his Libyan family unfolds, the book travels back in time to his childhood relationship with his father, his life as a literary person in London, his many encounters with men who had been in the infamous Abu Salim prison at the same time as his father, the testimony of his uncle who spent 21 years in Abu Salim, the story of a heroic younger cousin who died in the resistance, a truly bizarre series of encounters with one of Gaddafi’s sons who makes and breaks endless promises to help, and a witness account of the massacre in which his father probably died. It’s a far cry from painless, but it’s a dramatic and engrossing lesson on the recent history of Libya.
It’s also a passionate account of what it means to have your beloved father snatched away by an oppressive regime and to spend decades imagining the worst and having only partial success in finding out what happened. It’s that emotional charge that animates the narrative. There are passages that readers from less expressive cultures might find a little florid, but for me they were among the strongest things in the book. This passage, for example, rings completely true to me, and makes me regret that I never managed to acknowledge anything of this debt to my father when he was alive:
The country that separates fathers and sons has disoriented many travellers. It is very easy to get lost here. Telemachus, Edgar, Hamlet and countless other sons, their private dramas ticking away in the silent hours, have sailed so far out into the uncertain distance between past and present that they seem adrift. They are men, like all men, who have come into the world through another man, a sponsor, opening the gate and, if they are lucky, doing so gently, perhaps with a reassuring smile and an encouraging nudge on the shoulder. And the fathers must have known, having once themselves been sons, that the ghostly presence of their hand will remain throughout the years, to the end of time, and that no matter what burdens are laid on that shoulder or the number of kisses a lover plants there, perhaps knowingly driven by the secret wish to erase the claim of another, the shoulder will remain forever faithful, remembering that good man’s hand that had ushered them into the world. To be a man is to be part of this chain of gratitude and remembering, of blame and forgetting. of surrender and rebellion, until a son’s gaze is made so wounded and keen that, on looking back, he sees nothing but shadows.
A version of the opening of the book was published in the New Yorker in April 2013. It’s available online here.