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The Book Seller
Thursday, 8 June, 2006

Hisham Matar: A Tale Told In Exile

25 May 2006

Hisham Matar: A tale told in exile

Benedicte Page

Hisham Matar often finds it hard to remember exact periods of his childhood--the difference between the ages of seven and eight, for example, is vague. But he has the clearest recollection of what it was like to be nine, because that was the last year he spent at his home in Tripoli, Libya.

That year, in the late 1970s, the Qaddafi regime went through a crackdown, and Matar's diplomat father was named on a list of people the regime wished to interrogate. It was a dangerous development at a time when many were being imprisoned or executed. The family lost no time in escaping to Egypt, where Matar's parents still live today.

Matar's compelling first novel, In the Country of Men (Viking, July), already characterised in book trade shorthand as "the Libyan Kite Runner", has as its narrator a man in exile, looking back to his Libyan childhood. Though very far from being directly autobiographical, the novel's themes are clearly inspired by this formative experience for the author.

In the novel, the adult Suleiman remembers his cloistered, even claustrophobic, childhood as the only son of a doting mother--a mother whose secret addiction to alcohol is deeply bewildering for the young Suleiman.

Even more bewildering is the way the political pressures of the time begin to affect his child's world. A family friend is dragged away and executed, and Suleiman's father falls under suspicion. As his mother sets about burning incriminating books that might seal her husband's fate should they be discovered, the boy Suleiman is pressured into acts of betrayal.

"I am interested in how children deal with what they are given, what they are born into," Matar explains. "Children are by definition implicated in the environments they are born into, regardless of what episode of history it is. And in childhood, there is such a vivid sense of being, your perceptions are very alive, and the sense of implication is not only very strong, it is also very confused and fresh."

The theme of exile is key to the novel, he says. "Another way of defining exile is as a narrative that has been interrupted. You can never continue the narrative, so there has been a fracture. This book is very much about this fractured narrative: this man who is longing to return, to reconnect, but never can."

Matar recalls his own last months in Libya: "There was this new sense of fervour taking over the whole country. I remember as a child books being burned, bookshops being closed. It was a terrible time for writers." Unlike Suleiman, though, he was "very sheltered" by his parents. "The family was wonderfully capable of creating moments of joy within these very bizarre circumstances. I didn't really come to understand the scale of what had happened until later."

After his family's move to Egypt, Matar elected to go to a British boarding school. "It was a bizarre place to be for a North African boy, this cold place where the food was torture and the water was never hot," he smiles. "But I found the structure rather liberating. My family were living as most exiled families do, with very strong roots back home. Almost every month I would hear: 'God willing, next year we will be back home.' After a certain time, a child wants to be engaged in the present and I found English boarding school rather calming in that sense. Ultimately everyone in it wants to go home [he laughs], so I wasn't unique."

Nowadays London is where he wants to be. "Home is where I write. London is the only city in the world where I can be alone for long stretches of time yet not feel alone. And it helps that London is a city of exiles.


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