Love, Loss And All Points In Between
Thursday June 29, 2006
Hisham Matar's father was 'disappeared' by Libya's secret police. His friends have been hanged; his relatives have been jailed. Does that mean the only thing he can write about is suffering? Stephen Moss meets the man behind the summer's hottest novel.
Hisham Matar ... 'I would have liked to write a book
that had nothing to do with politics'. Photograph: Sarah Lee
Why isn't Hisham Matar angrier? In 1990, when he was a student in London, his father - a Libyan dissident living in Cairo - was kidnapped, taken back to Tripoli, imprisoned, tortured. He smuggled several letters out from Abu Saleem jail detailing his treatment, but there has been no word since 1995. The not-knowing must be hideous - so how to square that with this charming, engaging, patient young man?
Matar, whose first novel is being touted as the literary event of the summer, suggests meeting in Holland Park, on the western fringe of central London. No doubt this is a way of keeping me out of the rented flat he shares with his American-born photographer wife, but it's appropriate, too. He often walks here in the morning before writing. "I find it calming," he explains. "There's always a problem when you write, something you're trying to resolve, and sometimes a view can be inspiring."
The novel that has so excited the critics draws on Matar's troubled childhood in Libya, yet draws away from it too. I find his calmness about his kidnapped father strange, and can't stop nagging away at it. Why not go back to Libya, where supposedly long-closed doors are creaking open, look for him, try to find out what happened? "Maybe if I watch Rambo a few times I might be convinced of that idea," he says. "But life doesn't work that way. In any case, to go back would feel like a betrayal of a lot of the people I knew. I know so many people in Libya who are in prison - three cousins and an uncle, friends who have been killed, hanged by the neck."
There is anger, of course, when you prod. He calls the vacancy in his life "torturous". "You don't know the fate of this person that is central to your life. Your horizon continues to drop. In the beginning you want justice, but then you want to see him, to speak with him. Later, you don't even want that - you just want to know whether he is alive or dead."
In 2003 Matar wrote a moving piece for Amnesty International about the effect his father's disappearance had on him and his mother and elder brother, who still live in Cairo. Earlier this month he appeared alongside Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard in a high-profile Human Rights Watch event at the Royal Court. He does not shy away from the political implications of his story, but nor will he be defined by them. The horrors of Libya in the 1970s are the backdrop to the novel, not its core. Instead, at the heart of the book is a boy struggling to understand - and ultimately escape from - the claustrophobic society into which he was born.
"I would have liked to write a book that had nothing to do with politics," he says. "I think ultimately I am a sensualist and an aesthete. I'm not really interested in politics, but politics was part of the canvas. I had to say something about it, otherwise all the different forces that are shaping these characters would be abstract."
Matar is fascinated by the way people escape the "grand narratives" that encase them - country, religion, family, heritage. The boy in the novel, Suleiman, is sent to Egypt by his parents when he is nine so he can avoid military service later; the book's author also left Libya at nine, when his father's name appeared on a list of people the government wished to interrogate. The family fled; the Libyan secret police had to wait 11 years to conduct their interrogation.
The links between character and author - both were born in 1970, both have to make their life as exiles - are clear, but Matar insists the book is more than autobiography. "Suleiman and I are different in many ways," he says. "The fact that he's an only child is very important. He's got this internal monologue going on the whole time. I had a brother who was my role model, and I was with him almost all the time. He was a swimming champion, always surrounded with friends and lots of cousins, so it wasn't so insular. Also, Suleiman's emotionally volatile, unpredictable mother plays a big role in his life, whereas my mother and my father were both very stable and reliable.
"What I used was the perspective of the child. The landscape is very familiar to me, and also that time in the 1970s. When I was that age, it was very subtle. I sensed there were some things you could not say. You'd be sitting around the dining table and one of your uncles would say something and everyone would fall silent, because they suddenly remembered there was a child at the table and he might carry these words elsewhere and then somebody would get arrested."
Another key difference is that Suleiman's father is active in the political underground in Libya, whereas Matar's wasn't. A former diplomat - Matar was born in New York when his father was working for the Libyan mission to the UN - he was targeted simply because he was a middle-class intellectual and successful businessman. It was only when the family left Libya in 1979 that he became open in his opposition to the regime. Matar insists that the novel, despite the life-mirroring separation of the nine-year-old Suleiman from his parents, is not explicitly about the disappearance of his father. That book, he says, is still to be written - and he knows that one day he will write it.
Matar has not been back to Libya since 1979. He describes the book as in part a "love ode" to his childhood home, but says that world has now vanished. He lived with his family in Egypt until he was 15, then came to boarding school in Britain - a western education was de rigueur among his class. He studied architecture at Goldsmiths College, and in his 20s had his own small practice. But literature was already calling: first he wrote poems; then the poems alchemised into prose.
"The poems I was writing were becoming more and more interested in narrative and telling stories," he says. "I started writing what I thought was a poem but that ended up as a scene in the book where Suleiman is picking mulberries. I felt the structure of the poem was restricting me and I wrote it out as prose." The novel began to take shape, became an obsession. He was waking at five to write, then going to work. But the book took over; he abandoned architecture, gave up his practice, and did a variety of jobs, all pleasingly exotic - acting, stonemasonry, bookbinding - to make ends meet. In fact, ends rarely met.
"The romantic idea of the penniless writer is false," he says. "It's terrible. I hated being in debt, I hated the anxiety of not knowing whether we could pay our rent that month. Thankfully, I had a wife who was very supportive and had faith and shared my madness. I got the call from my agent [to say Penguin had bought the novel as part of a six-figure, two-book deal] on the day I was ready to go to our landlord and say, 'You'll have to add this month's rent to what we owe you.' It came in the nick of time." Matar didn't have enough credit on his phone to call his wife with the good news; his landlord (evidently a saint) had to call her instead.
While it is dangerous to seek symmetries between life and art, it is impossible to resist one connection. Suleiman finds a sort of peace in Cairo; evades the pain of exile. "What was astonishing is how free I came to feel from Libya," says the character in the book when his rite of passage is complete. "Nationalism is as thin as a thread - perhaps that's why it's so anxiously guarded."
His creator evidently feels the same. He is in flight from so many places that he feels no separation; is at home in London, a city of happy, hedonistic exiles. "My ability, as soon as the aeroplane lands in a city I've never been in before, to imagine having been born there and dying there is bizarre," he says. "It's almost the first thing I think of. I've very aware of my rootlessness." Like Suleiman, Matar has escaped from his grand narrative, had his revenge by showing that evil does not blot out the sun.
In the Country of Men is published by Viking on July 6, price £12.99. To order a copy for £11.99, with free UK p&p, call the Guardian bookshop on 0870 836 0875, or visit Guardian.co.uk/bookshop