VIKING £12.99 £11.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
The truth is sadder than fiction
Sunday 24 September 2006
Hisham Matar's gripping first novel, one of the surprise inclusions on this year's Man Booker Prize shortlist, takes the reader to the Libyan capital Tripoli in the 1970s, and explores Gaddafi's political terror as seen through the eyes of a child.
The narrator is nine-year-old Suleiman, a boy oppressed by the weight of many secrets. First, there's the secret he carries for his unhappy mother, with whom he is wrapped up in an intense, sometimes smothering relationship. During the long, lonely nights when his father Baba is away, Suleiman is the only witness to his mother's addiction to her "medicine", the illegal alcohol she obtains by stealth.
Then, when the Revolutionary Committee men come to drag off one of Baba's friends as a traitor to the regime, there is another confusing secret for Suleiman to keep. Baba's collection of books, with titles like Democracy Now, must be hurriedly burned and no-one is to know. But there is a policeman lingering in a car outside Suleiman's home who would like to hear more about the activities of Baba and his friends, while a mysterious echo sounds on the family's telephone. Some secrets are hard for a child to keep.
Matar's depiction of the brutal Libyan regime gains power from being viewed from Suleiman's guileless perspective. The child is cruelly exposed to its worst excesses, as public executions are broadcast in all their obscenity on the television screen. But more subtly, Matar also suggests how political terror stains everyone who lives under it: dissident Baba, who crumbles under torture; Suleiman's mother, who must grovel to neighbours she detests in order to protect her family. Even Suleiman himself, just an ordinary child with all a child's unruly and passionate impulses, can be tempted into acts of betrayal. A chilling passage in the novel shows how easily Suleiman is drawn into complicity with the secret policeman seeking evidence against his father, seduced by the lure of adult attention.
Sadly, the author knows his territory only too well. Hisham Matar is the son of a Libyan diplomat, and was forced to leave Tripoli at the age of nine, when his father's name appeared on a list of people the regime wished to interrogate and it became too dangerous for the family to remain in Libya. They fled to Egypt, but later, while Hisham was at boarding school in England, his father was kidnapped by the Libyan secret police and taken back to the country to be imprisoned and tortured. Nothing has been heard of him since 1995; the Matar family do not know whether he is alive or dead.
The shadow of that trauma hangs over the book. Yet if In the Country of Men offers insights into experiences few British readers have had to share, many of its themes are deeply familiar. The anxious bond between Suleiman and his alcoholic mother is one of the strongest elements of the novel; Matar has written not just a story about a troubled country, but also a beautifully nuanced tale of the complexity of family relationships and the painful vulnerabilities of childhood.
BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital moveTV
Final Top Gear reviewTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Humans of New York image of crying gay teen receives best response from Ellen DeGeneres
- 2 What supermodels really think about posing in the nude
- 3 People all over the world are getting semicolon tattoos to draw attention to mental health
- 4 Black teen in critical condition after store employee 'shoots him for stealing 79-cent pack of cookies'
- 5 Chris Moyles reportedly set to make radio comeback with new breakfast show on XFM
This is surely the best way to watch Jaws
Amy Winehouse film director: 'I wanted to show the fun, bright-eyed girl we didn't know'
James Blunt was special guest on the highest-rating Top Gear episode ever
Chris Moyles reportedly set to make radio comeback with new breakfast show on XFM
Contemporary art is a fraud, says top dealer
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Osborne to cap family benefits at £23,000 – announced ahead of his post-election Budget
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Forget little green men – aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert
Girl, 7, stares down hate preacher at Ohio festival with pro-LGBT rainbow flag gesture