Anatomy of a Disappearance
By Hisham Matar
The Dial Press, 2011
Oversubscribed bandwagons and spotlit newsrooms are rarely hotbeds of great art. Though it is always heartening to see a work of fiction hold the public gaze beyond the confines of literary circles, dust jackets advertising works of “immediate contemporary relevance” sit ill with the permanence to which literature aspires. The law of child actors holds true for writers, too: the brightest spotlight burns brief.
No one knows this better than those novelists who by accident of birth or circumstance are thrust into the limelight when their country makes the news. Squinting against the public glare, they are called on to elucidate, sibyl-like, the ills besetting their homeland. While experts and history books can give you the facts, novelists provide “a more profound understanding,” as a recent review in the Financial Times put it (the kind of novels the FT chooses to review generally serve as a case in point). It must be odd for writers to see their work examined forensically by the powers that be, and sounded for clues into their country’s plight. That Daniyal Mueenuddin’s much-feted In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a collection of short stories about feudal relations in Pakistan, was required reading in Obama’s White House, strikes one as both auspicious and deeply irksome.
Generally, however, artists do not the sharpest pundits make. In this regard, Hisham Matar is exceptional — although “punditry,” Sanskrit and scholarly in origin but derogatory in modern usage, hardly does justice to his talent. Born in New York to Libyan parents and raised in Cairo, Matar is long settled in London, where he writes in beautifully chiseled English — in brave, clean sentences, occasionally startled by a detail of lingering sensuality. Although he has barely returned to Libya since his family fled in 1979, Matar’s work has given voice to the country’s long history of suffering under one of the most entrenched and brutal dictatorships the region has seen. Among the regime’s untold victims was Matar’s own father, a prominent dissident who was kidnapped by Egyptian agents in 1990, handed over to the Libyans and disappeared into one of its notorious prisons. To this day, his son does not know whether he is alive or dead.
Matar is a gifted memoirist, deft at transforming the void at the center of his life, by some impossible alchemy, into quietly searing prose. His journalistic writing has also done much to illuminate the wider tangle of Libya’s recent past, the backdrop to the current conflict. Most memorably, however, and most inescapably, he is a novelist. It is as if the story he has to tell, being larger and more savage than life as we know it, must accede to the order of myth to find satisfactory release. Much has been made of the semi-autobiographical nature of Matar’s fiction — absent fathers are at the vanishing center of both his novels — but these books are also carefully wrought, imaginatively plotted constructions. Though born from a single overwhelming preoccupation, both books are sculpted with an ingenuity that sets them apart as compelling works of fiction in their own right.
Both In the Country of Men, Matar’s celebrated first novel, and Anatomy of a Disappearance are told through the eyes of a child. The first is drawn perhaps more closely from life: much like the author, the protagonist witnesses the terrible upheavals of 1979 in Tripoli, is sent away to Cairo, and comes of age haunted by the ghost of a lost father who might yet return at any moment. In Anatomy of a Disappearance, these autobiographical anchors are sunk. The novel’s young protagonist, Nuri el-Alfi, also grows up in Cairo, but the land from which his family has been exiled is never named. By virtue of this vagueness, the story takes on a universal, fable-like quality: the state depicted becomes not so much Matar’s own homeland but the archetypal Arab autocracy, in the same way that Daleswick, the forbidding Yorkshire school to which Nuri is sent, with its cold housemaster, creaking floorboards, and stifled sexual awakenings, is drawn as the archetypal English boarding school.
“There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest”: the opening line sets the tone, both lyric and sparing. True to its title, the book is a dissection of loss, its eloquence and oppressiveness, its paradoxical presence. Like a imperceptible but insidious gas, it seeps into every crevice of the lives that it touches, denaturing, dividing, driving grown men to distraction. The device of narrating through a child’s uncomprehending eye deliberately clouds the father’s dissident activities (“the secret work I never once heard him talk about”); when he disappears, the enigma is left wholly, painfully intact.
Beyond the paternal specter, the plot centers on Nuri’s attachment to three women: his pale, melancholy mother, who dies suddenly when he is ten; the devoted family servant Naima, who is perhaps the story’s most memorable character; and Mona, Nuri’s father’s alluring second wife, equidistant in age between Nuri and his father, and to whom the young adolescent is ardently drawn at first sight: “I wanted to wear her as you would a piece of clothing, to fold into her ribs, be a stone in her mouth.” These carefully observed relationships, which form discrete storylines that on several occasions bleed startlingly into one another, fuel the dark emotional undercurrents of the novel. Looming above it all and binding them together is the father’s evanescent aura, much as a distant moon commands the ebbing tide.
The first half of the novel is a tapestry of fine, carefully textured prose, enlivened by a childlike eye for physical detail: the optical illusion caused by the shimmer on a woman’s stockings; jasmine flowers held close to the nose to mask a hospital’s stench; a woman intent on seduction, in whose laughter can be heard “the hard edge of hunger”; the inebriated guest getting into bed (“if he had not tried so hard to be quiet he might have made less noise”). But after the news of the father’s vanishing, the plot, character, and style are drastically streamlined into what comes close to resembling the particular form of a crime thriller. In the wake of the disappearance, previously strong ties begin to fray and fade; characters lose some of their density; the prose grows predictable, even plodding at times. Parts of the book are so stirring that you feel them creep under your skin. Why, then, is the novel so difficult to finish? Perhaps this is all intentional. Perhaps Matar is attempting to convey the single-mindedness of Nuri’s struggle for meaning, the ponderous obsession that sets in, as he tries to right a gruesome and arbitrary wrong. Such moments of studied coldness disturb, like a tender mother turned suddenly aloof, and leave us regretting the depth of feeling that Matar has accustomed us to.