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Author / Writer Spotlight, Fiction

In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance

On a white-hot day in Tripoli, Libyra, in the summer of 1979, nine-year-old Suleiman is shopping in the market square with his mother. His father is away on business – but Suleiman is sure he has just seen him, standing across the street in a pair of dark glasses. but why isn’t he waving? and why doesn’t he come over when he knows Suleiman’s mother is falling apart?

Whispers and fears intensify around Suleiman: his best friend’s father disappears and is next seen being interrogated on state television; a man parks his car outside the house every day and asks strange questions; and his mother frantically burns his father’s books. As Suleiman begins to wonder whether his father has disappeared for good and will he ever return?

Since the escalation of political unrest in Libya recently, the author of this 2006 Booker shortlisted novel has been in demand to comment about living under Gaddafi – something he is particularly well placed to do.  His own family fled Libya for Egypt in 1979, and his father, a former UN diplomat and political dissident was kidnapped in 1990 in Cairo, while Matar was studying in London and Hisham has not seen him since.

The unrest put the book in my radar when I realise there were not many books written by a Libyan (in fact I don’t know any except Hisham Matar, do you?) and how fortunate to stumble upon one especially one that experience the repressive regime first hand.

In a deceptively prose, told in eyes of a 9-year-old, the novel explores a young boy’s relationship with her unwell mother, with the need to feel accepted, coming of age and his uneasy relationship with his father. Matar movingly charts the ways in which love endures in situations of great repression, but also shows how repression threatens everything, sacrifices to be made, even love.

His description of a public execution is an exceptional piece of writing – both horrifying and vivid in description one that truly seal Matar as a master of bringing out a scene in such horror and sensitivity. The scene is by turns absurd, painful and terrifying – and, with consummate confidence, at the crucial moment of the hanging Matar is able to step back from the detailed descriptions and evocative imagery to tell us, simply and chillingly: “Everybody seemed happy.”

There are so many powerful words that leap out of the pages for me:

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 innermost memory I have of love. 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. – page 21

Grief loves the hollow, all it wants is to hear its own echo. Be careful. – page 40

From her makeshift bed she would lie late into the night watching Egyptian romance films where lovers and love are never satisfied and where after a single word or glance violins would begin to whine. As I live now in the country that produced those films I am familiar with their short comings. Their melodrama seems to mock love….. She must have sat on the edge of her seat, ready for the violins, impatient for the moment that would come to strengthen her doubts about love and confirmed her instinct to go without it, accepting – always accepting – a life forced upon her. – page 86

I felt an infinite longing for nothing specific, as if a void in my soul was announcing itself. – page 106

For being displaced:

I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss. I am both repulsed and surprised, for example, by my exaggerated sentiment when parting with people I am not intimate with, promising impossible reunions. Egypt has not replaced Libya. Instead, there is this void, this emptiness I am trying to get at like someone frightened of the dark, searching for a match to strike….. How readily and thinly we procure these fictional selves, deceiving the world and what we might have become if only we hadn’t got in the way, if only we had waited to see what might have become of us. – page 232.

The book reminiscence of Khalid Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner“, in both a young child’s narrative in an oppressive regime with a momentous unwarranted event that good friendship is asunder. Besides that, this is a more masterful rendition compare to The Kite Runner and I am a little gutted that this book did not win the Man Booker Prize of 2006. Perhaps after I read Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, which is sitting on my shelf, then I would be in the position to make a conclusion.

I love his writing so much that I have decided to read his recently publishedAnatomy of a Disappearance.

Hisham Matar signed a two-book deal with Penguin Viking and it is expected that he will publish the second books. What took me by surprise is that he took 5 years in between to publish his second books in a very coincidental time with the recent uprising in Libya.

His second novel is more understated, subtle and less tension and horror than the first.

Similar to the first, it is also one that deals with a disappearance of a father but it explores more about a father that the protagonist Nuri hardly knew.

Following the death of his mother when he is 10, he receives affection from the devoted servant Naim who has been with the family since her early teens. Nuri’s inner struggle began when Nuri is 12, when he and his father, Kamal Pasha el-Alfi,  spend the summer at a hotel in Alexandria where they meet a half-Egyptian, half-English young woman named Mona. Matar brilliantly conveys Nuri’s confusing adolescent passion for Mona and his pain as he observes the growing closeness between her and his father. After Mona and Kamal marry, Nuri is packed off to boarding school in England but his obsession with Mona persists. Nuri comes across as a lonely, defensive individual, locked in his past and suffering the continuing pain of his father’s absence without knowing his fate.

Compared to the first book, this one explores about how well we know our fathers; when a loved one disappears, how does their absences shape the lives of those who are left behind? How does Nuri cope with his infatuation with his stepmother? If the first book, Suleiman’s father is abducted in Libya, on the second, Nuri’s father is abducted while he is abroad. Either way the mokhabarat (the secret police) will find a way to nab the dissidents.

As disquiet as the first book, Matar’s prose is spare and sensitive and is not short of a compelling read. He builds up an atmosphere of unease and tension as Nuri tries to piece together the secrets of his family through clues and half-remembered whispers that make sense only years later. One mystery is why his father was in the bedroom of a woman named Beatrice Benameur when he was seized.

Some of my favourite passages:

The first paragraph of “Anatomy of a Disappearance” reads:

“There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old enveloped in the drawer of my bedside table. There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places. everything and everyone, existence itself, has become an evocation, a possibility for resemblance. Perhaps this is what is meant by that brief and now almost archaic word: elegy.”

The last paragraph of “Anatomy of a Disappearance” reads:

“I tried on more of his clothes. The tweed suit fitted, albeit stiffly. when I pushed my arms forwards I could feel the fabric stretch a little. Perhaps if I wear it often, I thought, it will gradually return to its original size. I found his old raincoat, the one that used to hang behind the door to the study. It, too, seemed to have shrunk, but I was able to button it all the way up. I put my hands in his pockets. He had neglected to empty them. There was a crumpled -up tissue in one, a half-used tube of peppermints in the other. I put them back. I tied the belt around my waist the way he used to do. He will need a raincoat when he comes back. This might still fit him. I returned it to its place.”

Page 83:

I had to restrain myself from writing to her too often, especially because she rarely wrote back or responded with the speed and in the manner I had allowed myself to expect. Some people manage to escape the obligation a sincere letter places on them. Mona was one of those. And she never gave me reason to think she cherished my letters; she never mentioned them. Perhaps this was her wisdom, if wisdom is the world – another would be ruthlessness.

Hisham Matar’s writings reminds me of Kazuo Ishiguro, except Hisham Matar exudes a sensitivity that I found hard to surpass. Perhaps he is writing about a topic that is so intimate and so dear to his personal tragedy that I feel his loss, his unresolved grief, like no other writers could ever make me feel. Many parts of the book “Anatomy of Disappearance” could be fictional, but the first and last paragraphs is without a doubt an autobiographical voice of Matar. In 5 years gap of his writing of the two books, when I reached the final sentence of both books, I put my book down, hold a deep breath and sigh, and felt deeply haunted by his closing words.

I haven’t read a book that made me feel like that for a long time. In a deceptively simple prose, beautifully written and controlled, his words exudes powerful impact. Hisham Matar’s books (only two so far) deserve to be widely read.


Other thoughts:

Gaskella: The book creates a vivid and sad picture of growing up under Gaddafi’s regime, and it was hard to believe that this is Matar’s first novel. Highly recommended. (8.5/10)

The Tanjara: Review for both books.

Consideration of books: This is an extemely well-written book that opened my mind to a people who having been living for 42 years under oppression. It also reminded me how universal the job of being a mother is, and how difficult it is to get it right.

Simon@SavidgereadsAnatomy of a Disappearance’ felt like one of those rare books you more than just read. You live it. You learn it, and in my case I went off afterwards and learnt far more about it once I had finished.

Read more about Hisham Matar’s recent interview and thoughts on Libyan uprising

I am reading these two books for Middle East Challenge.

In the Country of Men

Hardback. Publisher: Penguin Viking 2006 ; Length: 245 pages; Setting: 1970’s Tripoli, Libya. Source: Library copy. Finished reading on: 18th April 2011.

Anatomy of a Disappearance

Hardback. Publisher: Penguin Viking 2011 ; Length: 247 pages; Setting: 1970’s Geneva Switzerland, Alexandria Egypt, London UK to present day. Source: Library copy. Finished reading on: 25th April 2011.

I found Hisham Matar’s personal story to be so intriguing that I reproduce the information from Wikipedia here.

About the writer:

Hisham Matar (Arabic: هشام مطر‎) (born 1970) is a Libyan author. His debut novel In the Country of Men was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.Matar’s essays have appeared in the Asharq Alawsat, The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and The New York Times. His second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, was published on 3rd March 2011. He currently lives and writes in London.

Hisham Matar was born in New York City. He spent his childhood in America with his Libyan parents while his father, Jaballa Matar, was working for the Libyan delegation to the United Nations. When he was three years old, his family went back to Tripoli, Libya, where he spent his early childhood. Due to political persecutions by the Gaddafi regime, in 1979 his father was accused of being a reactionary to the Libyan revolutionary regime and was forced to flee the country with his family. They lived in exile in Egypt where Hisham and his brother completed their schooling in Cairo. In 1986 Matar moved to London where he continued his studies and received a degree in architecture.

In 1990, while Matar was in London, his father Jaballa, a political dissident, was kidnapped in Cairo. He has been reported missing ever since. However, in 1996, the family received two letters in his father’s handwriting stating that he had been kidnapped by the Egyptian secret police, handed over to the Libyan regime, and imprisoned in the notorious Abu Salim prison in the heart of Tripoli. Since that date, there has been little information about Jaballa Matar’s whereabouts. In 2010 Hisham Matar reported that he had received news that his father had been seen alive in 2002, indicating that Jaballa had survived a 1996 massacre of 1200 political prisoners by the Libyan authorities.

In March 1990, Egyptian secret service agents abducted my father from his home in Cairo. For the first two years they led us to believe that he was being held in Egypt, and told us to keep quiet or else they could not guarantee his safety. In 1992 my father managed to smuggle out a letter. A few months later my mother held it in her hand. His careful handwriting curled tightly on to itself to fit as many words as possible on the single A4 sheet of paper. Words with hardly a space between, above or beneath them. No margins, they run to the brink.

Matar began writing his first novel, In the Country of Men, in early 2000. In the autumn of 2005, the publishers Penguin International signed him to a two-book deal. In the Country of Men was published in July 2006 and has been translated into 22 languages.

In 2008 Matar became the Mary Amelia Cummins Harvey Visiting Fellow Commoner at Girton College at the University of Cambridge. He is currently a writer-in-residence for the charity First Story.

Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, contains a character whose father is taken away by the authorities; while Matar acknowledges the relation to his own father’s disappearance, he has stated that the novel is not autobiographical.

In the Country of Men was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2006. The book won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book award for Europe and South Asia, the 2007 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, the Italian Premio Vallombrosa Gregor von Rezzori, the Italian Premio Internazionale Flaiano (Sezione Letteratura) and the inaugural Arab American Book Award. “In the Country of Men” has been translated into 22 languages.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


23 thoughts on “In the Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance

  1. Oh I am so glad you read these books and posted them to the Middle East Reading Challenge, thank you! I think the first one sounds particularly good and am going to see about getting a copy. Thank you!

    Posted by Helen | April 29, 2011, 11:19 pm
  2. A very informative post-thanks very much

    Posted by Mel u | April 30, 2011, 7:37 am
  3. Wonderful post, Jo! I have never heard of this author either. I don’t know many Middle Eastern writers (well, I guess most of us don’t) but of course Khalid Hosseini I know. Also I loved the books by Ahdaf Soueif – was it you who also mentioned her? I don’t remember.

    Thanks for this great post.

    Posted by Leeswammes | April 30, 2011, 8:16 am
    • Forgot to tick the button to receive follow-up comments, so I have to write another comment (ignore). 🙂

      Posted by Leeswammes | April 30, 2011, 8:17 am
    • Judith, Thanks for your kind words (and thanks for reading my long ~ posts too!) I read Ahdaf Soueif The Map of Love, a bit ambivalent about it but she is a great writer. Perhaps I should try her other books. Give Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men a go and tell me what you think about it! 😉

      Posted by JoV | April 30, 2011, 8:51 pm
  4. I just love the cover of Anatomy of a Disappearance… lovely – the book has been added to my list from your review.

    Have you heard about A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar? I loved it. This is a lighter take on the conflict and displacement in the area that the author uses humor – dark humor and it is light as a book of this sort can be. Wonderful book, easy to read and relatively short.


    Posted by Shellie | May 1, 2011, 3:50 pm
    • Shellie, I hope you will love Hisham Matar’s writing. Let me know when you read it. UK local library do not stock Randa Jarrar’s books, I’ll have to look up on Amazon.co.uk. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Posted by JoV | May 2, 2011, 6:59 pm
  5. It is great to see that you enjoyed these so much. I have a copy of In the Country of Men already and Anatomy of a Dissapearance also appeals. I’ll have to push Matar up the pile.

    Posted by Jackie (Farm Lane Books) | May 2, 2011, 6:53 pm
  6. Very in-depth post, Jo! Now I’m wanting to go and read his books, especially after you’ve compared him to Kazuo Ishiguro 😉 Thanks for introducing this author to me!

    Posted by Chinoiseries | May 3, 2011, 6:04 pm
    • Chinoiseries, you’re welcome. You know the truth is I didn’t even like Ishiguro’s writing that much. Maybe I haven’t read The Remains of Days yet but I like Hisham Matar’s writing and I thought it reminds me of Jhumpa Lahiri as well.

      Posted by JoV | May 3, 2011, 7:39 pm
  7. Wow and wow. The quotes you’ve provided are great. I will definitely read this. thanks for the insightful review.

    Posted by Kinna | June 19, 2011, 4:25 pm
  8. Hi there, I liked your review of Hisham Matar’s ‘In the Country of Men’ and wondered whether you might be interested in asking Hisham Matar a question about this book? BBC World Book Club on the World Service is interviewing him soon and would love to hear from you. If interested, please email me at World.Bookclub@bbc.co.uk as soon as you can with a question about the book (anything – doesn’t have to be particularly clever!), along with where you’re from/live. We can either arrange for you to talk to Hisham Matar himself, or have our presenter put your question to him for you. Then you will be able hear your question on BBC World Service Radio when it airs.
    Best wishes,
    BBC World Book Club

    Posted by Julie | June 21, 2011, 9:54 am


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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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