A Libyan Childhood
IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN
By Hisham Matar
Dial. 246 pp. $22
Behind reports of dissidents intimidated, tortured and killed by the world's repressive regimes hide the subtler, more obscure stories of their young children. They experience a world overcast by two shadows: parents trying to shield them from alarm and Orwellian governments denying that anything is amiss. Writing from his current home in London, Libyan author Hisham Matar has captured this plight in his first novel, a haunting, poetic story about a 9-year-old boy struggling to comprehend what's happening to his family in the vise of Col. Moammar Gaddafi's reign of terror. In the Country of Men, which was shortlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize, includes frightening glimpses of the dictatorship's abuses and Libya's brand of Islamic puritanism, but Matar focuses primarily on the psychological damage wreaked on his young narrator.
In 1979, Suleiman is an only child enjoying summer vacation in the usual ways of children everywhere: swimming, climbing trees, playing with his friends in the streets. But a deep anxiety pervades his home in Tripoli. A man is parked outside in a car "like a giant dead moth in the sun." His father, a successful businessman, is tense and distant. The adults who drop by sound happy until Suleiman steps out of the room; then they fall into panicked whispers. His mother grows increasingly dependent on her secret "medicine." A model of matronly care and concern during the day, she burdens her son at night with tales of her forced marriage at the age of 14, the sexual humiliations she endured, the dreams she relinquished.
Matar writes in a voice that shifts gracefully between the adult exile looking back and the young boy experiencing these events through his limited, confused point of view. Why are they burning father's books and papers? Who is that voice breaking into the phone calls? Why has another boy's father "vanished like a grain of salt in water"?
"I couldn't wait to be a man," little Suleiman thinks, "heavy with the world," but what does it mean to become a man in a country where men are either brutal or cowed? Powerless to save his family from threats he can't begin to understand, Suleiman falls into bouts of sullenness and anger, committing acts of betrayal that immediately sting him with shame.
Looking back at this "time of blood and tears, in a Libya full of bruise-checkered and urine-stained men," he realizes that his childhood left a "lasting impression on me, one that has survived well into my adulthood, a kind of quiet panic." Though set in one of the world's most peculiar, most despotic countries, this sad, beautiful novel captures the universal tragedy of children caught in their parents' terrors. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.