Tara Bahrampour is a Washington Post staff writer and the author of “To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America.” She covered the Libyan revolution and its aftermath for the Post.
The standard-issue prison memoir has a predictable arc: The protagonist is detained, incarcerated and then freed to reflect on the experience. But when the detainee is a loved one, a more labyrinthine sort of prison is imposed on the writer. Hisham Matar was 19 in 1990 when his father, a prominent Libyan dissident, was seized in Cairo by Egyptian secret police and delivered to Libyan authorities; Jaballa Matar was held for about six years in a notorious Tripoli prison, and then no more was heard from him. This is known. Much more of the younger Matar’s adult life has been ruled by unknowns, and they form the foundation for his breathtaking memoir, “The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between.”
“Pain shrinks the heart,” he writes. “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. When Qaddafi took my father, he placed me in a space not much bigger than the cell Father was in.”
It is in defiance, then, that Matar, a Barnard College English professor and New Yorker contributor, has produced two acclaimed novels about fathers who go missing in Middle Eastern dictatorships. But simply imagining was not enough to lift him out of the “shame in not knowing where your father is, shame in not being able to stop searching for him.” And so in his third book he sets out to find his father and in doing so, to free himself.
“The Return” is constructed as two interwoven narratives. One is the story of a closing: the kidnapping, incarceration and disappearance of Matar’s father, a onetime army official and diplomat who turned against Moammar Gaddafi, fled with his wife and children, and fought the regime from abroad. That tale begins with the cosmopolitan activist, writer and family patriarch moving comfortably between Europe and the Middle East, and telescopes into a bleak cell from which he communicates with the outside world only intermittently through a network of other prisoners. The parallel story is of an opening, as the son spends two decades peeling away layers of obscure, unreliable details from ex-prisoners and craven Libyan officials to try to uncover what happened to him. In 2012, the year after the revolution that toppled Gaddafi, Matar finally returns to the homeland he has not seen since he was 8, to excavate its literal and metaphoric ruins.
Early in the book, he reflects on dissident writers who left their homelands and others who stayed behind. Which is better? To him, each path is blighted. To remain in Libya meant living under an ax that could fall at any minute; to leave meant losing the rich web of family and tribe that has kept Libyans rooted together along a narrow fringe between sand and sea, surviving onslaughts from outside and within. Before Gaddafi, they were persecuted by the Italians; Matar’s family lost members to each regime. But they always returned — his father in disguise, repeatedly sneaking over the border to visit his own father, and Matar on a commercial flight in 2012 to look for him, sensing that if he could not find him in the flesh, he might in other ways.
Matar’s prose is both spare and soaring, transporting in the way a great painting or musical composition can be. His words are selected with careful intention; his sentences are at once poetic and conversational, his themes particular and universal. He masterfully depicts the shrinking that comes with exile, the loss of social and professional networks, the hunger for a place in this world. When he reunites with relatives who never left, it seems to him “as if everyone else’s development had been linear, allowed to progress naturally in the known environment, and therefore each of them seemed to have remained linked, even if begrudgingly or in disagreement, to the original setting off point.” He himself feels “a kind of distance-sickness,” a rupture from “that other self who lives in harmony with his surroundings.” He notes that this affliction seems to be shared only by ex-prisoners.
At a literary event in his honor, Mater is surrounded by people who knew his father in ways he never did — as a man of letters and as a prisoner. Old men hug him, and Matar realizes that his event — and by extension, his return — is as much about them as it is about him. “It was as if I were a stowaway being claimed back by the fatherland. The thirty-three years that troubled me troubled them too.”
His experience mirrors that of many Libyans during and after Gaddafi: the hopes of becoming whole again and the repeated dashing of those hopes. He finds poignancy in the half-finished architecture of eastern Libya, an area that was always more resistant to the regime and therefore more neglected. Its main city, Benghazi, is a perpetual construction zone — unpainted concrete hulks, streets devoid of trees, punishing traffic patterns — but as Matar and his non-Libyan wife walk its streets during a brief democratic opening, they contemplate moving there. “I had never been anywhere so burdened with memories yet also so charged with possibilities for the future, positive and negative, and each just as potent and probable as the other. The entire country was poised on a knife-edge.”
Matar reunites with uncles and cousins who have spent a third to half their lives in prison. Even as he envies them for being able to speak to his father through cell walls, he reels from the enormity of what they have lost. “In a life of activity, one free from dramatic rupture, where the progress of things is unbroken by catastrophe, where the skin of our thoughts is regularly touched by new impressions, discoveries and influences, our maturation comes to follow a gradient that creates the illusion of a seamless line. With Uncle Hmad, the young man he was at the point of his arrest and the man he had become seemed to exist in parallel, destined never to meet and yet resonating against one another like two discordant musical notes.”
In a book that does not shy away from painful details, the event it hinges on — his father’s arrest — is strikingly absent. If at first this feels disappointing, it is in fact well-considered, a powerful patch of negative space that serves, perhaps better than any description could, as an embodiment of the missing man and of the anguish uncertainty brings.
Matar’s evocative writing and his early traumas call to mind Vladimir Nabokov, whose keen ability to depict loss helped him forge a literary presence in a new language and land. Both are cosmopolitan and tribal, at home in London and New York but loyal to the characters and gardens of their youth in that primal way of people for whom exile comes immediately on the heels of childhood and starkly defines adulthood.
But where Nabokov’s loss of country and father were public and final (Iron Curtain; assassination on a Berlin stage; no attempt at return), Matar’s are frustratingly indefinite. Dissidents slip in and out of Libya undetected but are unsafe abroad; Matar’s father manages to smuggle letters and recorded messages out of prison during the early years of his confinement, then vanishes. But perhaps not entirely. There is no record. There is no grave. Only this elegy by a son who, through his eloquence, defies the men who wanted to erase his father and gifts him with a kind of immortality.
By Hisham Matar
Random House. 243 pp. $26