Could it be so easy — GAME OVER — the capturing of a 69-year-old rat?
A clown in a rat-colored outfit, a wild mop of hair, a wig
Holding a golden pistol like a child playing hero, high-heeled boots.
Is that what our history amounted to?
Because somewhere there were suns that would never light.
Somewhere, there were holes in the air that was full of death.
We managed to hold our breath and live our lives.
— Khaled Mattawa, “After 42 Years”
The cruelty of this place far exceeds all of what we have read of the fortress prison of Bastille. The cruelty is in everything, but I remain stronger than their tactics of oppression […] My forehead does not know how to bow.
— Jaballa Matar, in a letter to his family from Abu Salim prison in the mid-1990s
LET’S BEGIN with the obvious: read The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between before you read anything else. Inspired by architecture, music, and poetry, Hisham Matar’s book-length elegy is significant both because of the story — the kidnapping of his political activist father Jaballa Matar by the Qaddafi regime in 1990 and the subsequent search for answers — and for the way the story is told. In this triptych of beloved country, father, and the art that survives, Matar moves us with the force of his compassion, grace, and fury.
In describing “After 42 Years,” penned by fellow Libyan exile Khaled Mattawa after Colonel Muammar Qaddafi was captured and killed in October 2011, Hisham Matar wrote:
The poem is a rare literary example of how a poet can respond to a contemporary event and write from within the fervor and fire of the present. With composure and honesty — always wanting, always willing to feel for the other — the poet revealed and held for us the historical dimension of that moment. I remember hearing him read it on the radio. I found it difficult to breathe till that final line: “There is no ‘after’ until we pray for all the dead.”
Matar has himself created something rare and literary with The Return, his own prayer for the dead. The author of two critically acclaimed novels (In the Country of Men, 2006, and Anatomy of a Disappearance, 2011), Hisham Matar was born in the United States to Libyan parents. He spent his childhood in Tripoli and Cairo and his adult years in London, Paris, and New York. In a 2007 interview for Words Without Borders, he said, “what interests me about my situation is how unnatural it continues to be. It never ceases to unsettle me that I am operating in a language my grandparents would have not understood.” This distance from country of origin and mother tongue is evident in his preoccupation with longing and un-belonging. Early on in The Return he muses,
I had always regarded Manhattan the way an orphan might think of the mother who had laid him on the doorstep of a mosque: it meant nothing to me but also everything. It represented, in moments of desperation, the possibility of finally cheating myself out of exile.
Weaving that 30-year exile throughout his account, Matar uses his father’s words to guide his journey as a son and a writer: “My forehead does not know how to bow.” Jaballa Matar — diplomat, businessman, father, husband, political organizer — was larger than life. “It was said,” Matar writes, “that even the way he walked irritated the authorities. It exuded defiance.” He continues:
When I first heard this, I thought, how perceptive it was. Even as a young child, I could never imagine my father bowing, and even then I wanted to protect him. He has always seemed to me the quintessence of what it means to be independent. This, together with his unresolved fate, has complicated my own independence. We need a father to rage against. When a father is neither dead nor alive, when he is a ghost, the will is impotent. I am the son of an unusual man, perhaps even a great man. And when, like most children, I rebelled against these early perceptions of him, I did so because I feared the consequences of his convictions; I was desperate to divert him from his path. It was my first lesson in the limits of one’s ability to dissuade another from a perilous course.
The Return begins in March 2012, with Matar, his mother, and his wife awaiting their arrival in Libya on the 22nd anniversary of his father’s first week in captivity. En route, Matar’s mother asks which of the protagonists from his novels will accompany him home, preferring that he travel with “fictional characters [rather] than be carrying the ghost of [his] father, the man she calls the Absent-Present.” Though she’s teasing, the scene compels the reader to consider the blurriness of fiction and nonfiction; both of Matar’s novels feature young men whose fathers are ghosts. In the first, In The Country of Men (2006), Suleiman, longs for his Baba:
That night I dreamed of Baba floating on the sea. The water was unsettled, moving as it does in the deep, rising and falling in hills. He lay on his back. He looked like a small fishing boat trying to surrender to the sea. I was there too, working hard to keep my shoulders above water, to not lose sight of him, but the sea rose, and he vanished from view. I kept swimming. I knew I was close. Then I saw him, wooden and stiff. When I reached out to touch him he turned into a fish, agile and shy. He plunged with a splash down and away. I could see his silver spine flicker below the water. I turned around and saw no shore to return to.
Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011), Matar’s second work of fiction, is also narrated by a teenager with a missing father. “There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest,” Nuri begins.
Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table. There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places. Everything and everyone, existence itself, has become an evocation, a possibility for resemblance. Perhaps this is what is meant by that brief and now almost archaic word: elegy.
But while Matar shares some of his fictional characters’ frailties and vulnerabilities, as the narrator of his own story he is perhaps fiercer, more determined. Unlike Suleiman and Nuri, he writes from an adult perspective, looking back at the boy he left behind in Libya. He remembers that he sometimes had to become ruthless in order to protect himself from the possibility of losing his father. When Jaballa Matar informs the family that he is going to Chad and may never come back, Matar asks him: “What time is your flight?”
This story — the true one — is not told chronologically because it cannot be; the past is fused onto the bone of the present, not just thematically, but syntactically as well. For example, he writes: “the room in Cairo where Diana and I slept the night before we flew to Libya, lying on our sides to fit on the narrow mattress, was my old room. I was now fifteen. I was now forty-one. I was now eight.”
The effect of “was” and “now” paired together in this way is a guide for the reader: the bed he shares with his wife contains all of time. As does the memoir itself: “My father is both dead and alive,” writes Matar. “I do not have a grammar for him.” He continues:
He is in the past, present, and future. Even if I had held his hand, and felt it slacken, as he exhaled his last breath, I would still, I believe, every time I refer to him, pause to search for the right tense. I suspect many men who have buried their fathers feel the same. I am no different. I live, as we all live, in the aftermath.
But it’s more than the nature of memory that complicates the boundary between life and death, between the tenses the author simultaneously inhabits. Families like Matar’s were denied the solace not just of certain knowledge but of caring for the bodies of their loved ones. This was only one of the cruel and barbaric aspects of dictatorships like Qaddafi’s. Indeed, The Return contains the stories of countless relatives who lived through the horrors of the Qaddafi regime, such as Matar’s Uncle Mahmoud, who tells him:
“They beat me, deprived me of food and sleep, tied me down, spilled a bucketful of cockroaches on my chest. There is nothing they didn’t do. Nothing can happen to me now that can be worse than that time. And always, I managed it. I kept a place in my mind, where I was still able to love and forgive everyone,” he said, his eyes soft and lips smiling. “They never managed to take that away from me.”
The Return, however, is not simply an account of forgiveness: anger, suffering, and loss flow all the way through in Matar’s precise and lyrical prose. About rage, he writes:
All the tools I had to connect with my country belonged to the past. Rage, like a poisoned river, had been running through my life ever since we left Libya. It made itself into my anatomy, into the details.
And pain, via his description, becomes a habitat:
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. When Qaddafi took my father, he placed me in a space not much bigger than the cell Father was in.
As for grief, according to Matar, it bends us closer to our humanity:
The dead live with us. Grief is not a whodunit story, or a puzzle to solve, but an active and vibrant enterprise. It is hard, honest work. It can break your back. It is part of one’s initiation into death — and I don’t know why, I have no way of justifying it — it is a hopeful part at that. What is extraordinary is that, given everything that has happened, the natural alignment of the heart remains towards the light. It is in that direction that there is the least resistance.
At one point, when a man who has claimed to see Jaballa Matar in “the Mouth of Hell” (Abu Salim prison) reassures the author that some day he will find his father, he writes, “What nonsense, I wanted to say. What complete fucking nonsense.” Such rare moments of exasperation stand out to remind the reader that pain, rage, and grief create a despair that cannot always be poetically contained.
Matar also purposely abandons lyricism when he encounters Qaddafi’s underlings, most notably Qaddafi’s son, Seif el-Islam. Maybe “grief is not a whodunit story,” but in these sections, with hope of news of his father recharged, The Return becomes a gut-wrenching thriller: the prose changes, because the quest changes. Matar’s search for information attracts international attention and is buoyed by a cadre of friends, writers, lawyers, and human rights advocates: he pens an open letter in conjunction with PEN International (and 270 signatories) to foreign secretary David Miliband, asking the British government to use its new “friendship” with Libya to inquire about the “whereabouts of Jaballa Matar and other political prisoners.” Desmond Tutu weighs in, demanding an urgent clarification; Nelson Mandela refuses, telling Matar “‘never to ask him such a thing again.’” (Qaddafi had been a staunch supporter of the anti-apartheid movement, and Mandela was loyal). Political history, economic reality, colonial legacy, and the story of a single family collide.
Overall and throughout, Matar is a designer of language: the brick and mortar of this memoir relies on his training as an architect, stone mason, and construction worker, all of which enforced discipline, repetition, and structure. (He is acutely attentive to elements such as the pattern of light in Benghazi, the “unfinished” architecture of his Grandfather Hamed’s home in Ajdabiya, and the “white leather belts of the firing squad” in Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian as they inform his private experience.) During his various apprenticeships he heard “the hard force of a warning bell, urgently ringing, Work and survive, work and survive.” In returning to Libya, he discovers a piece of fiction his father himself had written many years before. In the story, the narrator’s misfortunes lead him to his own father’s grave, where after shedding tears, he says, “I decided to work and survive.” These kinds of eerie overlaps echo between Hisham Matar and Jaballa Matar from beginning to end.
Describing reading his father’s first letter from prison with his mother and brother, Matar writes about grief: “[It’s] a divider. It moved each one of us into a territory of private shadows, where the torment was incommunicable, so horribly outside of language.” And yet, when he meets the man who says he saw Jaballa Matar pacing the prison courtyard alone, he somehow finds words. His desire, expressed in stark physical terms, is terrifying, alarming, and remarkably tender: “I looked into the man’s face as he told me this. I felt the powerful urge not so much to know how Father had appeared to him but literally to possess his eyes, the eyes with which he had seen my father, to pluck them out of the man’s skull and insert them into mine.”
Qaddafi may have taken Jaballa Matar from his family, but Hisham Matar demonstrates on page after page that this “clown in rags” could not steal his inheritance: to create work that does not turn its back on beauty and light, even, or perhaps especially, in the face of exhausting brutality. The Return is one of the most notable memoirs of our generation, by one of our most elegant living writers. In his testimony to the tenacity of the human spirit, Hisham Matar has shown us what language can do.