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‘The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between’ by Hisham Matar (Penguin Random House, 280 pages, $26)
A member of the Libyan National Army (LNA) aims his weapon while crossing a street during fighting against jihadists in Qanfudah, on the southern outskirts of Benghazi. AFP photo
In the 1949 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s “The Third Man,” Orson Welles’ character delivers a famous monologue on complacency and art: “Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
“The Return” by Hisham Matar is a powerful work given extra weight by the fact it is the product of great suffering and tragedy. Between novel and memoir, the book describes its narrator’s return to his native Libya after the overthrow of the dictator Muammar Gadaffi. There he searches for the truth about the fate of his father, the dissident Jaballa Matar who took his family into exile in Cairo in 1979 but was kidnapped by the Libyan security services a decade later.
His wife and two sons never saw him again. They know he was taken to the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, but they do not know whether he was among the 1,270 massacred at the prison in June 1996. The gates of Abu Salim were broken open during the tumult of 2011 and his family wonders whether Jaballa was among those who escaped. They know this is unlikely but the author feels obliged to pursue every loose end to find out what happened to his father. This involves excavating Libya’s dark recent past and aggravating the Matars’ private trauma.
“When your father has been made to disappear for nineteen years,” writes the narrator, “your desire to find him is equaled by your fear of finding him. You are the scene of a shameful private battle.” His return to Libya after 33 years away – like a “stowaway being claimed back by the fatherland” – is not the start of his quest, as he has been desperately pursuing every scrap of information for two-and-a-half decades. But it does mark a kind of crescendo. He has 130 first cousins to visit in Libya and tension is ratcheted up by Hisham’s fear of learning the truth. “When I think of what might have happened to him, I feel an abyss open up beneath me,” he writes, while acknowledging “[annoyance] at my inability to resist hope.”
His return is not just a personal ordeal. It also gives him a revealing window into his homeland after the fall of Gadaffi in February 2011. He hears stories of horror and hope from his father’s relatives, friends and former prison-mates as he pursues leads around Libya. The atmosphere is febrile, an “entire country poised on a knife-edge,” writes Matar. “I have never been anywhere where hope and apprehension were at such a pitch … Anything seemed possible, and nearly every individual I met spoke of his optimism and foreboding in the same breath.” The country was “burdened with memories” but also “charged with possibilities for the future, positive and negative, and each just as potent and probable as the other.”
At one point Matar is persuaded to write for a new magazine “on any subject: politics, literature, art, anything.” This contrasts strikingly with before when his books and journalism were banned. He takes part in a “civil and well-organized literary event” in Benghazi that suggests the tantalizing prospect of normality in the new Libya. Indeed, there was a brief window of hope between the revolution and the blood and carnage of civil war that followed, but even then an ominous future could be sensed. “In those night hours, lying there listening to the city in the dark, I could sense the possibility of horror,” writes Matar.
Some of the narrative feels rather bludgeoning. “This was a precious window when justice, democracy and the rule of law were within reach,” it observes a little too conveniently at one point. But on the whole Matar is a fine judge of what to reveal and what to keep hidden. “The Return” keeps the reader on tenterhooks until the final pages.
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