The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between
(Random House, 2016)
Hisham Matar has finally stopped beating around the bush and is telling us his story straight. Matar is the author of two very good novels (his 2006 debut, In the Country of Men, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; it was followed by Anatomy of a Disappearance in 2011) that deal with, among other themes, political dissent and intrigue, exile, oppressive regimes, and, at their center, absent fathers. Matar himself has dealt with all these throughout his life and he presents his experiences in his newest book, a memoir titled The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between. It would be fair for those familiar with Matar’s novels to wonder why they should bother with this book if the themes are largely unchanged. The easy, perhaps sufficient reason is that it tells Matar’s personal story, the largest tributary of his artistic output. It both complements and completes Matar’s artistic profile, at least when it comes to these themes. Matar’s prose is as beautiful as ever.
It can’t be easy for a novelist to venture outside his form, despite the fact Matar is well-practiced at writing essays and journalistic pieces; he wrote dozens of articles during his decades-long campaign to pressure the Gaddafi regime to reveal his father’s fate as well as several pieces arguing in favor of Western intervention on behalf of the rebels during the Libyan revolution. The Return’s triumph is that it is sympathetic without being cloying, believable without being dry, and artfully profound without stripping itself from reality. Matar recently wrote a short piece for The New Yorker recounting how he came to writing. “I also remember being filled with wonder at the way words could be so precise and patient, illustrating, as they progressed, what even the boy I was then somehow knew: that there exists at once a tragic and marvellous [sic] distance between consciousness and reality.” The Return lives and moves in that between.
Matar was born in Libya, just months after Muammar Gaddafi seized power in a coup, to a family of sophisticates, most notably his father, Jaballa Matar. The elder Matar was a literatus, a highly successful businessman, and a military leader to boot, and he quickly attracted the fear and enmity of the Gaddafi dictatorship. He and his family were forced into exile in 1979; they settled in Cairo. Jaballa continued his political activities, including bankrolling underground cells in Libya and arming and training his own dissident group in neighboring Chad.
And then in March 1990 Jaballa was kidnapped in Cairo. Hisham was living in London at the time. Some days after disappearing in Cairo, Jaballa was thrown into the notorious Abu Salim prison near Tripoli in a cell close enough to some of his brothers and cousins—who were all arrested around the same time Jaballa was kidnapped—that they could hear him reciting poetry. Abu Salim was Gaddafi’s Abu Ghraib, a place where the régime placed its undesirables to be tortured and reeducated by, among other niceties, blasting recordings of Gaddafi’s speeches at full, crackling volume into each cell for nine hours a day. Matar’s uncles and cousins wouldn’t be freed for another twenty-one years. Jaballa was disappeared in 1996, his whereabouts and fate undisclosed. “When I think of what might have happened to him, I feel an abyss open up beneath me. And where am I? I am clutching at the walls. They are rough and unreliable, made of soft clay that flakes off in the rain. The abyss is circular. Like a well. Our well,” Matar writes.
The Return is about Matar’s search for his missing father and his return trip to Libya in March 2012, his first time in the country since 1979. Only six months had passed since Gaddafi had met his inglorious end at the hands of rebels. The author’s eponymous article that appeared in The New Yorker in 2013 makes up the book’s first five chapters. He recounts his reunion with ex-prisoner relatives and his reacquaintance with his country of birth during the ominous silence between revolutionary jubilation and the forthcoming civil war. The book is also an attempt, and a successful one, at physicalizing the abstract. The disappearance of his father is a decaying, dark well. Even something as ungraspable as light, “came in as solid as a wall, blackening the three or four figures walking in.”
Indeed, Matar’s father is both abstract and concrete, like a ghost. Matar tries to make physical his absence, and he also tries to bring him back into existence through his and others’ memories. Matar’s visceral writing makes us feel the dread, anger, and stubborn hope that attends the loss of family and home. But he also wants to place us inside those emotions, to feel their texture against our faces. “You make a man disappear to silence him but also to narrow the minds of those left behind, to pervert their soul and to limit their imagination. When Gaddafi took my father, he placed me in a space not much bigger than the cell Father was in.” Matar brings us into his cell and through its barred windows we see Libya and we hear, echoing off the cold walls, memories of and second-hand murmurings about his father and the probable horror that befell him.
Nonetheless, I’m not sure what more Matar could do with these particular themes. Indeed, I thought I detected throughout the book a sort of finality, a feeling that this will be Matar’s last attempt, at least in the foreseeable future, to examine his relationship with his lost father. I hope this memoir will be emancipatory for Matar both personally and artistically. His talent is too prodigious to be locked in the metaphysical cell Gaddafi put him in all those years ago. Another book, metaphorical or not, about a missing father or exile or Libyan political intrigue (with the possible exception of the internecine warfare now gripping the country) might exceed the bounds of interest. He writes that he envies “the finality of funerals.” Perhaps Matar will settle for the burial of an empty coffin.