Muammar, we're all
Oscar Turner finds
that the horror at the heart of Colonel Gaddafi's Libya is addressed
in Hisham Matar's winning debut, In the Country of Men
Sunday July 16,
In the Country of Men
by Hisham Matar
The eponymous men in Libyan-born
Hisham Matar's outstanding debut novel are impenetrable, austere,
terrifying. For nine-year-old Suleiman, they are a flickering but
potent presence: hands in smoke-filled rooms that he is instructed
to kiss. But Suleiman is growing up in 1970s Libya and a far
larger force looms over even these goliaths: Muammar Gaddafi, 'The
Benefactor', 'The Guide'.
Oppression is with us from the
opening page in the form of the relentless summer heat from
which humans and ants scuttle into shady hiding. Suleiman's days
lack form; school is out and he spends his time playing on the
roof of his parents' house or in the streets of their affluent
Baba, Suleiman's father,
disappears on various business trips. Mama dolls herself up
for Baba's returns, but falls into a strange distemper
whenever he is away: giggling, chain-smoking and forgetting
to turn the gas off. Her medicine is procured under the
counter from the local baker. It is her and Suleiman's
When Mama was 14, she was spied
hanging out with boys at the Italian Coffee House. She was
locked in her room for a month and forced into marriage.
Suleiman is bound up in the guilt and rage that emanate from
this. Baba is 'the man who was her punishment', Suleiman
'the boy that sealed her fate'.
An already mystifying world
beinfoes markedly more so. There are strange meetings
between the grown-ups and whispered words of political
dissent. Suleiman spots his father crossing the street
when he is supposed to be abroad. Baba is wearing shades
and Suleiman is panicked by the concealment. More men turn
up to ask aggressive questions and search the house.
Ustath Rashid, the father of Suleiman's friend, is carted
off; then Baba too disappears.
After his father's
disappearance, Suleiman watches Ustath Rashid being
interrogated on television. Rashid later appears on
screen at the national basketball stadium, where he is
harried up a ladder and hanged. When the image beinfoes
too gruesome, the screen is washed out with images of
flowers and the national anthem is played. Gaddafi, it
is rumoured, controls this piece of programming with a
switch in his room.
The spectacle has left
Suleiman with a permanent sense of 'quiet panic, as if
at any moment the rug could be pulled from beneath my
feet'. As a child, he is unable to process the horror,
lashing out at his playmates (and the local beggar)
with a befuddled sadism. As an adult, exiled in Egypt,
he is disengaged and empty. 'Nationalism,' we are
told, 'is a thin thread'; but Egypt has not replaced
Libya in his affections. As for men, Suleiman has
gained little understanding of their ways: 'It's a
sign of madness, I know, to claim to know what is in
another man's heart.'
At a time when western
leaders have been cosying up to Gaddafi, it is
salient to be reminded of the cruelty of his reign.
In the Country of Men is a powerful political novel
and a tender evocation of universal human conflicts
- over identity, forgiveness, love. It is due to be
published in 13 languages and, despite its short
length, took several years to write. It was more
than worth the wait.