Perhaps the most daunting task in all of literature is the confrontation of institutionalized cruelty. Far too often, the palate of language from which an author must work is insufficient to effectively communicate what must be said.
It is at such times that some authors will throw up their hands in frustration and abandon their writing; others, however, keep on looking until they’ve found a way to articulate their outrage.
Count Hisham Matar is a member of the latter group. His first novel, “In the Country of Men,” was short-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, after the young writer found a way to tell the story of Libya under “revolutionary” despot Muammar Qaddafi. Drawing on his own childhood in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, Matar’s writing is at once lyrically playful
and deadly serious.
In a style reminiscent of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Matar finds his own voice through that of nine-year-old Suleiman. Confronted for the first time by violence, hypocrisy and manipulation, Suleiman struggles to understand both his family and himself as he enters into “the country of men.”
Life has long treated young Suleiman well. His family is well-off thanks to his father’s mysterious work in international business, he is surrounded by close friends and his faith is strong. But soon, this placid facade begins to crumble. Suleiman glimpses his father in a busy market square, disguised by dark sunglasses.
His mother begins to tell wild stories after drinking her “medicine” from unlabeled, hidden bottles.
A strange man from the Revolutionary
Committee begins to ask him cryptic questions. And then, with no warning, his best friend’s father is charged with treason and taken into custody.
As Suleiman’s world spirals out of control,
he tries to draw courage from the stories of the Koran and “One-Thousand-and-One Nights,” but the old heroes no longer inspire him as before. Suddenly, the line between good and evil has become blurred.
“How can any one of us prove that he or she is not, and never was, a traitor?” wonders Suleiman. “How can you prove something that never happened?”
The novel rapidly progresses into a tug-of-war over the allegiance of naive Suleiman, whose questions go increasingly unanswered even as his need to know grows ever more pressing. As the complexities multiply, “In the Country of Men” moves from being just one more reflection on life in a totalitarian state, to being much, much more. It becomes an investigation of the meanings of family and allegiance,
an exploration of how to love when true love is forbidden. Hisham Matar’s voice is certainly one of the strongest to debut in recent years.
“In the Country of Men” is undoubtedly not the last we will hear from this promising young writer, who seems to have so much left to say.
Peter Chomko can be reached at email@example.com.