Seeking Libya (The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar)

“Pain shrinks the heart. This, I believe, is part of the intention. You make a man disappear to silence him but also to narrow the minds of those left behind, to pervert their soul and limit their imagination.”

In The Return, Hisham Matar provides two stories: the story of Libya and the story of a dissidents’ disappearance and the family left behind. We gain more than a glimpse into Libya’s history – from its little know past and vague borders through the Italian-colonial period, revolts and coups, to political intrigue involving Egypt and Britain, to cultural insights into the Bedoin and a family saga, the impact of exile (“Guilt is exile’s eternal companion.”) and especially the struggle of a man to find his father.

Hisham Matar is a young man studying in London when his father disappears from the family’s exile in Egypt. At the time, Libya has been taken over by Gaddafi. Much of the first part of the book looks back at the history of both the country and the family. Of his father, he writes that “he was a writer responding to ghosts and to history.” As the story progresses, Matar questions official stories and contemplates what happens to those left after the disappearances of dissidents: the dearth of creativity, the shrivelling of the soul.

Through the passing years, Matar waffles emotionally, often succumbing to the likeliness that his father is dead. “But then hope, cunning and persistent, crept back in… .” We ride emotional storms and political frustrations as the search moves from a personal one to an international one. Slowly, over decades, facts leak out, and eventually there is a regime change. The son makes a visit to the now-empty prison.

Abu Salim is the last place Jaballa Matar was known to be alive. It’s the site of the massacre of 1,270 prisoners, “the incident that all those years ago had started a chain of events that ultimately led to the overthrow of Gaddafi.” He visits the prison but fails to find closure: “The body of my father is gone, but his place is here and occupied by something that cannot just be called memory.” And later: “My father is both dead and alive… . I live, as we all live, in the aftermath.”

Matar’s writing and research skills are clear throughout The Return (as they are in his novel In the Country of Men that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.) The memoir attempts a balancing act. However, I frequently found that he succumbs to an emotionally flat tone, and I wonder if it is a way to maintain a distance from the pain of loss and of grief forever raw and unresolved. But this is a small complaint given the scope of the story, its range across time, generations, the personal and the political.

28 The Return

Available through your local bookstore or online: The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between

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