Boyd Tonkin: Fiction's secret road to freedom

The week in books
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

On 17 December, a Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, burns himself to death in despairing protest at the humiliations he has suffered. A brief 12 weeks later, jet fighters armed with missiles fly from a misty Norfolk airfield in order to incinerate military targets 1500 miles away in Libya. History in its presto mode delivers plots so outlandish and bizarre that they trump the most fantastic fiction. Such moments should make every novelist with a taste for enlisting current or recent events in their work stop and think very hard. Reality will outgun them.

Stendhal famously likened politics in the novel – and, by extension, the history that flows from it – to a gunshot in a concert. Such explosive drama may bring the house down, but it wrecks all artistic harmony as well. Yet fiction that turns its back on its times often feels arid and airless. It so happens that an exemplary answer to this writer's dilemma has just appeared. Remarkably enough, it comes from one who lives and works at the eye of the Arab storm.

As is well known, the Libyan writer Hisham Matar lost his father, Jaballa, when the prominent exiled dissident was kidnapped from the family home in Cairo in 1990. After long years in which the son had to assume his father's death at the hands of Colonel Gaddafi's tyranny came the news, in 2002, that Jaballa had been sighted alive. Since then the heartbreaking fog of uncertainty has descended again. Matar, meanwhile, has become a selfless advocate of the Libyan democrats' cause. Over recent weeks he has put his knowledge and contacts at the service of the media.

His Man Booker-shortlisted first novel, In the Country of Men, drew on personal experience – but filtered it through a mesh of art so fine that it lost all the indigestible grit that drags down so much autobiographical or documentary fiction. Now, in its successor Anatomy of a Disappearance (Viking, £16.99), we meet an exiled politician from a nameless Arab nation which has shot its king and replaced him with an increasingly despotic revolutionary regime. Kamal Pasha lives with his son Nuri in Cairo. Later, in Geneva, Father disappears – abducted, it seems, by foes at home who still fear him. He never returns, though this "sudden yet ambiguous loss" propels Nuri's quest to recover a parent whose absence squats like "a weight on my chest".

Via a pure demonstration of the strange alchemy of fiction, Matar mines material that surely bears a seam of memory and history - but then transmutes it into an utterly separate set of elements. Sculpted in a prose of clutter-free, classical precision, the novel becomes the story not only of Nuri's longing for his father – a ghost captured in faint traces, from the whiff of a wristwatch strap at the start to the stiff tweed suits his son tries on at the end.

Above all, in a book marked by a brooding and rather sinister sensuality, it follows Nuri's relationship with four women from his father's life. First is the Mother whose early death brings "the density of grief" home to him. Then comes Mona, the seductive, volatile English-raised second wife. Mona's high-risk flirtations with her husband's son bring the flavour of Colette to Alexandria beaches and - later, when they leave Egypt - to London flats or hotel rooms, and even to the dank north-country boarding-school where Nuri languishes. Yet Kamal vanishes not from Mona's bed but from that of a mysterious Swiss woman, Béatrice, whom Nuri will finally track down. And, waiting patiently in Cairo through every upheaval, is Nuri's beloved old nurse, Naima.

Commanding and charismatic, Father insists before his abduction that "you can't live outside history". No: but novelists can choose their weapons when extreme events – private, public or both at once – threaten to overwhelm their gifts. Matar suffuses Nuri's education in love and loss with an erotic frisson and fragile grace that lend the book an inner radiance. Its people remain as vulnerable as ever to the rude detonations of history and politics. Yet out of brute fate they still carve a story of their own. Fiction can take its own, private roads to freedom.

Official dossier on the perfect spy

Long a subject of rumour and speculation, the authorised biography of John le Carré will finally come in from the cold in 2014. Then, sources in raincoats have revealed, Bloomsbury will issue Adam Sisman's life of the novelist, written with his help. Sisman has form with practioners of the arts of espionage, having last year published his riveting biography of grouchy historian and wartime SIS agent Hugh Trevor-Roper. So it seems that Robert Harris's agreement years ago to collaborate with Le Carré on a biography to appear after the author's death has come to nothing. Will Sisman, with a living subject, manage to spill as many secrets in his version?

Time to view Arthur & George?

Having once judged the biennial David Cohen Prize for career achievement (when it went to Derek Mahon), I can remember the brain-squeezing burden that comes with measuring the merits not of a single book but of an entire literary life. Yet the rules make it clear that the honour need not be a deathbed salute: quality, not longevity, counts most. A mere stripling, born in 1946, Julian Barnes took the award to justified acclaim last week. Discreetly managed, hype- and leak-free, the selection process is, as Barnes says, "conducted with proper secrecy and dignity". Yet I must lower the tone to ask: when will we see a film of his novel Arthur & George? David Edgar has already adapted it for the stage. Screen rights were snapped up years ago. With Arthur Conan Doyle at the height of his celebrity going into battle to defend a wrongfully convicted Indian-origin solicitor, this true story, so subtly fictionalised by Barnes, has just about everything that – given the right cast and director – might attract a shower of statuettes.