BookBrowse Reviews In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

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In the Country of Men

by Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2007, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2008, 256 pages

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A stunning depiction of a child confronted with the private fallout of a public nightmare set in 1970s Libya

Labeled by some as the "Libyan Kite Runner", In The Country of Men does share some similarities with Khaled Hosseini's runaway bestseller in that both are about young boys growing up in countries experiencing political implosion, with the result that their boy-sized mistakes take on adult-sized consequences; but Matar's prose is leaner than Hosseini's, and his themes share more with Ian McEwan's Atonement than with The Kite Runner. Matar's writing is arrestingly evocative, blending raw emotion with tiny, seemingly incongruous details seen through the eyes of a child, details that serve to fill the adult reader, who can interpret what the child sees in the wider context, with fear as he or she picks up the traces of impending doom lurking behind the innocuous.

The plot centers on nine-year-old Suleiman who struggles to cope with  his enigmatic father's increasing absences and his mother's frequent "illnesses" for which she takes "medicine" sold to her by the baker in brown paper bags.  Under the effect of alcohol, 24-year-old Najwa pours out her frustration as a woman in a "country of men" on the son she never wanted (but now dotes on when sober), telling him about her hasty marriage to a man twice her age (because she was seen holding hands with a boy) and her fears that the anti-state activities of her husband put not just him but his whole family in danger. 

In the morning, when she's forgotten most of what she said and refuses to discuss what she remembers, Suleiman is left with his burden of half-understood knowledge and a permanent sense of 'quiet panic', still retained by the adult narrator looking back on his childhood, desperately loving his mother and physically pained by his desire to save her.  Outside of Suleiman's home, life is no less uncertain.  He witnesses his best friend's father being taken away by security forces and hung on national TV; and the games that the neighborhood boys play become darker and more dangerous as events in Libya become more repressed and violent and the menacing shadow of Colonel Qadaffi ("the Guide") and his all-seeing security network take over the country.

In The Country of Men combines a hard-hitting political novel with a tender story of love and forgiveness which opens the eyes of those who read it to the cruelty of Qaddafi's long and still ongoing rule of Libya.  A reminder worth noting at a time when the leaders of the western world are so eager to wipe Libya's slate clean that in the space of less than two years Libya's designation as a a state sponsor of terrorism has been lifted and the country has been elected to a seat (albeit non-permanent) on the UN's Security Council.

Hisham Matar was born in 1970 in New York City where his father, Jaballa Matar, worked for the Libyan delegation to the United Nations.  When Hisham was three years old, his family returned to Libya to live in the capital city of Tripoli, where he spent his early childhood, until political persecution forced his mother to flee with her children.  They first went to Kenya and then to Egypt, where they settled in Cairo.  Hisham and his brother, Ziad, attended a school with 70 pupils per classroom (the only school they could afford) and were badly bullied. Later, Hisham's father managed to get out of Libya and join them in Cairo where he began his political work in earnest - speaking out against the Libyan regime and mobilizing the various factions of the exiled Libyan resistance to unite in order to overthrow Qaddafi.

In 1986, Hisham moved to London, England where he received a degree in architecture. In 1990, while he and his brother were both in London, their father was taken away by the Egyptian secret police. The family heard nothing until 1996 when they received two smuggled letters in Jaballa's hand written a year earlier, and a tape recording stating that he had been kidnapped by the Egyptian secret police and handed over to the Libyan regime where he was imprisoned in the notorious Abu-Salim prison in Tripoli.  Since then, nobody has heard from him.

Hisham Matar's first novel, In the Country of Men, was shortlisted for a number of literary prizes including the 2006 Man Booker Prize.  It won the 2007 Commonwealth First Book Award for Europe and South Asia, the 2007 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, the Italian Premio Vallombrosa Gregor von Rezzori, the Italian Premio Internazionale Flaiano (Sezione Letteratura) and the inaugural Arab American National Museum Book Award. To date, In the Country of Men has been translated into 22 languages.  Hisham Matar lives in London where he is working on another novel set in Cairo and London. He is married to American-born photographer Diana Matar.


Interesting Links

  • Read Hisham Matar's story in his own words at The Independent.
  • In the summer of 1996, stories began to filter out of Libya about a mass killing in the Abu-Salim prison. Even today it is still not clear how many were killed but estimates are that up to 1,200 of the 1,800 prisoners were killed.  It is not known whether Jaballa Matar was among them.

This review is from the February 21, 2008 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.



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