Saturday, October 05, 2019

Libya: The Return, by Hisham Matar

If I was to describe the ideal author for this world reading project, it would be someone born and raised in their native country, still largely resident there, and writing a book set in that country. So I was initially a little put off when I borrowed this book from the livrary, only to read on the blurb that he was born in New York (his father was a minor Libyan diplomat there at the time), and while he returned to Tripoli at a young age, his family left Libya when he was eight. Most of the rest of his childhood was spent in Cairo until he left for boarding school in the UK, and he has spent most of his adult life in London.

It's an arrogant demand, though. I quickly found on starting the book, that Matar regards himself as Libyan through and through. And the view of Libya that the book provides makes it clear that my ideal author is an unlikely construct. Under the 42 year reign of the dictator Muammar Qaddafi, a large proportion of the country's writers and intellectuals were thrown in prison for their opposition to his regime. Many of the author's own family met this fate. His father was abducted in Cairo and imprisoned in Libya. His eventual fate remains unknown. Two of Matar's uncles and two of his cousins were also imprisoned at the same time and released only after many years. The book describes how that wrote poetry in prison. Paper was bought from guards, some of whom could be bribed, and the poems were passed from prisoner to prisoner, but always had to be destroyed, often before reaching their intended recipient. So very few of the poems written in prison survive. If this was the fate of the poems, short enough to be memorised in some cases, how much more difficult would it be to write a novel under these conditions?

Hisham Matar has written two novels - his debut, In the Country of Men, was short listed for the Man Booker Prize - but The Return is non-fiction, a gripping account of his search to find out the fate of his father. This search remains, in the end, unresolved. But along the way, besides a good deal of information on Libyan politics, a light also shines on culture, art, and the importance of family.

The Return was published in the UK in 2016 by Viking, am imprint of Penguin Books Limited, and was also published in the USA.

No comments: