Hisham Matar is looking for two seats together in the quiet car — quiet because he is going to tell a ghost story about his country, Libya, and his father, a Libyan dissident who disappeared into a deep, dark hole in Moammar Gaddafi’s prisons.
Matar has soft hands, dons a scarf and wears the kind of black-framed glasses favored by French architects. He has written two highly praised novels; his second, “Anatomy of a Disappearance,” comes out in the United States in August. Born in New York (where his father was briefly stationed as a minor diplomat), Matar was educated in Tripoli, Cairo and London. Both of Matar’s books are about sons, haunted by the loss of fathers who are taken away by a malevolent state.
“There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest,” his latest work begins.
Which is why we are here today. Father figures.
“There is a relation between our society and our politics, isn’t there?” Matar asks. “Libyans don’t like it when I say it, but the way we live has influenced the way we have been ruled, I think.”
The author says Libyans like to portray Gaddafi “as this mad despot we’ve been unlucky to get. This guy with the strange hair, who smells funny, farts in public, this foreign creature fallen from the sky.
“But Gaddafi himself is very revealing, in all his speeches, how he speaks of himself as the father, and in Libyan society, in our families, we have the tradition of the strong, overpowering father figure. And, well, here he is: Colonel Gaddafi.”
The author is quick to add, “Nobody deserves 42 years of this guy.”
As the train clacks down the tracks, Matar recalls the lies told to him as a boy in the early years of Gaddafi’s rule, when The Guide, as the father-leader preferred to be called, taught his unruly children a lesson in submission — with show trials, televised hangings and chilling public announcements by revolutionary committees that someone, such as Matar’s father, was on The List.
You really didn’t want The Guide to put you on The List.
In Matar’s debut novel, “In a Country of Men,” shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, a young boy very much like Hisham is living in Tripoli after Gaddafi’s takeover when security services comes knocking on the door.
In reality, Matar’s father, Jaballa, was a military officer in the royal army during the reign of King Idris. After the revolution in 1969, his father was sent into soft exile, serving as a diplomat at the United Nations. He returned to Libya and became a businessman, but actually began his life as a dissident. Egyptian security agents arrested him on March 12, 1990, while he was living in exile in Cairo, and turned him over to the Libyan government, never to be seen by his son again.
“My father believed in armed struggle,” Matar says. “When he was taken by the Egyptians, they told us that he had crossed the line. But at least he was still in Egypt, they said. They told us not to tell anyone, not to speak to the press, that if we did, they can’t be responsible for him. We believed them because we wanted to believe him. But they lied to us.”
In one of only two letters smuggled to Matar’s family in two decades, the father wrote in tiny script on a single sheet of paper that he spent only a few hours in Egypt — he was flown blindfolded the night of his arrest to Tripoli. In his first year in the infamous prison called Abu Salim in the Libyan capital, he was let out of his cell eight times.
Revolutionary songs, slogans and speeches screeched out of prison speakers 18 hours a day.
“He apologized to my brother and to me,” Matar wrote in the Guardian newspaper last year. “But then he said if he had it all to do again he would have walked the same path.”
These days, news from Libya consumes Matar. His two uncles and two cousins were freed from prison in the weeks before the February uprising — after 21 years in confinement. His brother returned to visit Benghazi. But Matar is still waiting.
“I think Gaddafi has expired, as a regime, but the ending isn’t known,” he says. “The country has changed dramatically since the uprising, large numbers of the civilian population is armed and fighting, so how does that change society? What happens to all the guns after the fighting is over? Audacity, hope, courage — the Libyans have these in abundance. But all those boring little things — like organization, building a committee — is hard; making decisions and moving ahead is hard.”
In the past five months, there has been no word of his father, whose last confirmed sighting was in 1996, just before a massacre at Abu Salim ended with as many as 1,200 prisoners executed in a day.
In his letter, Matar’s father wrote, “One day justice will be done and the jailer will replace the jailed.”
Another man has assured the family that he saw the elder Matar — yes, a possible glimpse again — in 2002 at a secret prison. But since then there have been only rumors.
“I don’t think my father is alive,” Matar said. “But we will find out for sure once it’s possible to go to these other prisons. To speak to the guards, to welcome them back from savagery to humanity. Because the only ones who would know are the ones who imprisoned him.”
Matar keeps his father’s pipe on the desk where he writes. His father’s coat hangs in his closet.
Matar will spend the fall teaching a literature class at Barnard College in New York. Its title is “Estrangement and Exile in Global Novels.”