Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (Viking 2006)
When the Book Group met by zoom on 28 July, I had been away from home for a week or so, and my copy of the book had arrived after I left and was sitting in my mail box for five days, attracting the attention of snails. I had managed to read just five pages of a friend’s copy by the time we all logged in. I’m usually one of the swats who has read the whole book, so it was an interesting experience to come to the discussion in almost total ignorance.
At the meeting: We didn’t spend a lot of time catching up on one another’s lives, and spent no time at all eating and drinking. Once we’d managed to get ten of us on the screen (the sole absentee said he was too immersed in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light to think about any other book), this book held our attention for pretty much the whole two hours.
One chap said he found the book unreadable. He kept going back to his large-print library copy with good intentions and then falling asleep: he could tell that the young protagonist was enduring terrible things but just couldn’t feel anything for him or for any of the characters. When he said he gave up at about page 116, another chap said, ‘Ah well, I felt pretty much the same until page 108 and then it just took off.’ He then gave a spirited account of the book as a study in bad parenting: the protagonist, a young boy in Gaddafi’s Libya, feels a huge obligation to look after his mother, and for a child to feel that way his parents must have failed in their responsibilities. In this case, the mother was an alcoholic (in Muslim-dominant Libya!) and the father was some kind of half-baked revolutionary who went and got himself arrested and beaten up.
And we were off.
You can’t blame the parents when the society under Gaddafi was so dire. The book is a study in how an oppressive regime infiltrates and corrupts people’s minds and relationships, including those of parents and children. A good bit of the discussion was about how the boy exploits moments when he has the power to do harm, betraying in one example the only friend he has outside his family.
Someone who had read Hisham Matar’s The Return (which I also have – blog post at this link) spoke interestingly about the relationship between that memoir and this novel: the memoir deals with Matar’s permanent loss of his father by abduction when he was 19, and his attempt over years to find out what happened to him; the novel, written years earlier, returns the father, even though damaged, to a much younger son after just a few weeks, as if Matar wrote the novel to to explore what might have happened in his own life if things had gone differently.
After the meeting: I’d expected to sit in on the meeting, enjoy making contact, hear people’s news, laugh at their jokes, and then move on. I didn’t get much news, except that the window for commenting on the egregious plans for misspending billions of dollars on the Australian War Memorial was to close on 31 July, but the rest was as expected, except for the moving on: I decided that I had to read the book after all.
Life and other books got in the way but now at last I’ve read it, and even though the Group’s discussion had been full of spoilers, I was unprepared for the book’s the impact. It’s a tremendously powerful portrait of a woman’s experience of a virulent form of male domination, as seen through the eyes of her nine-year-old son Suleiman, who is in the process of being ‘trained’ to be such a man. True, she’s a terrible mother in many ways – but we discover that she was in effect trafficked by her family when she was fourteen years old, and got pregnant soon after as a result of marital rape, all socially condoned. Your heart breaks for the mother, the son and the father, all three.
Almost equally powerful is the account of what happened to dissidents under the Gaddafi regime, including Suleiman’s father and his friends. Confessions and executions are shown in television, and Hisham Matar doesn’t let us look away from the hideous emotional and physical detail. The nine year old sees and hears everything. He knows when he is being lied to, but understands very little of the politics. There’s a terrifying moment when he is about to give damning evidence of his father’s anti-Gaddafi activities to a manipulative member of the goon squad, oops, I mean the Revolutionary Committee, which creates a visceral sense of the deeply corrupting effects the regime has on even the most intimate relationships.
At a Sydney Writers Festival a couple of month’s after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Hisham Matar was on a panel entitled ‘Resist!’ with three US women writers. Referring his childhood years living under the Gaddafi regime, he said it was important to honour complexity, otherwise those who resist allow themselves to be defined by that which they are resisting. That could sound like a counsel of moderation. Among other things, this novel demonstrates that you can honour complexity, hate injustice with a passion, and write beautiful prose, all in the same book.