Thursday, December 22, 2016
The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, by Hisham Matar
In poetic and elegiac prose, Hisham Matar describes the psychological toll taken by a quarter century of uncertainty about his father's fate. Just when he begins to accept the death, he is hooked back in by a slender thread of hope.
Along with the problematic disappearance, the book deals with the theme of exile, a condition faced by many. This writer's long-delayed return visit to Libya poses another threat: the loss of "a skill that I have worked hard to cultivate: how to live away from people and places I love."
The state he describes is in-betweenness, an inability either to leave or to return. Like so many others, he has tried without success "to cure himself of his country." He recalls how Naguib Mahfouz warned against the risk of leaving the homeland, lest this act should hollow out the exile, sever his "connections to the source." Grief is a persistent virus, and Matar comes to envy those who can attend the funerals of their loved ones.
The descriptions of place are vivid and evocative. His first impression of England, visited at age ten, was that the narrow and deep lanes that made him feel "as if the earth were folding us in." Libya is vastly different. As a child in Tripoli, he remembers the first time he saw a sheep slaughtered. It "kicked furiously, snorting for air," as "the blood poured out black and thick like date syrup," and "small translucent bubbles grew and burst around its mouth." The boy clapped his hands "beside its wide-open eye," hoping to awaken the animal, cried when he could not.
As a middle-aged man finally returning to visit his home country, he describes the desert sky, "the last light stretched long, and yet as bright as the skin of a ripe orange." The scattered trees that grow along the roadway look "feeble and fragile as they lean in the direction of the wind." He is assailed by half-forgotten memories evoked by "the shape of a neck, an expression in the eyes, an intonation in the voice." His past is like "a severed limb."
The description of Benghazi, with its Arabic and Italian Corniches and large Catholic Cathedral, hints at Libya's turbulent history. Occupied by ancient Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, the nation lived more recently under Ottoman rule. It was annexed by Italy under Mussolini, and brutally savaged by fighting during the Second World War. The era that followed the oil finds have brought continuing chaos to this country of "unfinished buildings," where Matar feels that light is "shut out" of the houses, "like other things from outdoors: dust, heat and bad news."
Much of the book is devoted to descriptions of the enormous but inconclusive efforts of Matar and his brother to find out what happened to their father. "Guilt," he discovers, is "exile's eternal companion," and "stains every departure." Yet in spite of the memoirist's inability to learn the facts about his father's end, or to fully come to terms with their uncertain relationship, the writer has moved past the "young man's emotions" of hatred and anger. Ultimately, he has come to believe that "the natural alignment of the heart remains towards the light."
Hisham Matar's third book, The Return was awarded the Man Booker Prize.