Dispatches | June 29, 2007

Evelyn mentioned the Man Booker International Prize in a recent blog post and the cultural impact of Things Fall Apart. That novel rejected the school of thought that Africa was simply a heart of darkness and shed light on the troubling situations of a changing Nigeria. Her entry reminded me of an incredibly powerful debut novel of 2006 from a Libyan writer named Hisham Matar. His book, In The Country of Men, was shortlisted for the Man Booker annual prize for fiction in 2006. It’s a haunting read and a grim reflection on the last few decades of the author’s country.

The book tackles the events in Libya in the 1970s in an almost autobiographical way, looking at the rise of Colonel Gaddafi’s police state through the eyes of nine-year-old narrator Suleiman. Hisham Matar himself spent many of his formative years living in Libya before moving to London.

The novel resonates with vast implications about the politics and emotional conflicts surrounding young Suleiman. In fact, his youth makes the book all the more intriguing and terrifying. He watches as his neighbors disappear and Gaddafi’s police harass his own family. The government taps phones and holds show trials. The surreal, almost claustrophobic intrusion brings to mind Orwell’s searing portrait of totalitarianism in 1984, but with one key difference—Matar writes mainly from experience, about realities, not from the imagination, about some dystopian future.

Literature has the ability to tap into greater sociopolitical consciousness and transcend immediate emotional drama (still important, of course), which is what Matar has accomplished here. The works that combine such searing social insight with masterful writing lead to some of the true enduring classics. In the Country of Men succeeds as a disturbing and poignant portrait of a nation still fraught with the effects of Gaddafi’s 1969 revolution, while building an emotional core and tension worthy of a classic. The young Suleiman finds himself more concerned about his immature games with the neighbor boys, even as his alcoholic mother grows more troubled and the government more invested in the family’s home. The narrator finds himself looking back at the situations as an adult, however, and that new light offers stark clarity about the real situations involved. It’s even more astonishing to consider that this is a debut effort from Matar.

Fresh voices illuminate new perspectives and new worlds of thought and culture. Cheers to Hisham Matar and his first work. He’s starting this century off on the right foot.