It’s an early spring afternoon in west London. The open sitting-room window in Hisham Matar’s flat ushers in a welcome warm breeze, the rumble of nearby trains and the squawking of gulls. Tranquil in town, but the birds’ presence means rough weather out at sea.
Inside it is peaceful – flowers on the table and mantelpiece, art on the walls – although Matar, the author of two fine novels, The Country of Men and Anatomy of a Disappearance, and last year’s remarkable memoir, The Return, is talking about times that were anything but.
Matar was born in New York in 1970 while his father served as first secretary in the Libyan Mission at the UN. The family went back to Libya and lived there until 1979 when Matar’s father, Jaballa, who was prominent in the opposition to the new dictatorship of Mohammed Gaddafi, was forced to flee to Cairo.
Some 11 years later, Jaballa Matar was plucked from the streets of the Egyptian capital by the secret police and delivered to the Libyan authorities. He disappeared into the gloom of Abu Salim prison and is assumed to have died in a mass shooting of 1270 prisoners that took place on June 29, 1996.
In The Return, Matar relates the story of his first trip back to Libya since 1979 and his quest to establish once and for all the fate that befell his father. He, his brother and mother had three letters from their father and reports of sightings and rumours.
“Eventually,” he writes, “the original loss, the point of departure, the point from which life changed irrevocably, comes to resemble a living presence, having its own force and temperament. Like desire, its vitality is in what it withholds, until attachment and resentment are so closely intertwined that it is difficult at times to distinguish one from the other.”
Matar, a gentle man who speaks carefully and with consideration, says there is something a “little bit perverse” about someone who has lived in another country and language for most of his life being obsessed with the place he left at nine.
“I realised that all along what I have been convincing myself about is a myth. And the myth is that I was a stowaway and that eventually this island will appear on the horizon and all of my anxieties, reservations – whatever you may call them – will be resolved. Libya came to symbolise this mythical place.”
The title of his book reflects more than simply a physical return to Libya and the extended family he was deprived of for so long. It also represents a return to a “sensibility in a sense” of loud times and dramatic events.
“I had my own sensibility develop abroad. I had to go away for that, so when I returned I felt paradoxically a return to myself, to that sensibility.”
The Return is subtitled Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between. He is fascinated both by the nature of the relationship between fathers and sons and the fate of his own father.
“It was both a genuine attempt by a son to confirm the whereabouts of his father, absolutely. I think that was always the case, but that’s not to say that at the same time it was doing other things. It was at times a way for me to exercise my passion for him. When your father’s present you can exercise your passion for him in so many different ways. It could even be in conflict or affection, but you have someone real there you can bounce against.”
His father is not the only one in the book and Matar is not the only son. In his at times frantic attempts to discover the truth about Jaballa’s fate he came into direct contact with Gaddafi’s son, Seif el-Islam. Their encounters occur at a time when the British government was trying to improve its relationship with the regime. Shamefully, some might say.
But the engagement with Seif el-Islam – choreographed meetings in London hotels, bizarre phone calls and text messages – give Matar another perspective on being his father’s son. On the one hand it was difficult because Jaballa had disappeared; on the other it was easy because “he was a good man, he was brave, he didn’t break under the strain ??? Being my father’s son is a kind of privilege”.
This helped when dealing with the dictator’s son, who could, of course, have told him immediately where Jaballa was had he chosen to “because there was really nothing he could have done that would have taken away or added anything vis a vis my father’s position and that was a surprise to me”.
At the same time, he says, he felt a genuine awareness of the predicament of being Gaddafi’s son. “Being the son of the man who tortured my father is much more complicated than being the son of my father. And I have on some level a humanistic sympathy to that kind of complicated inheritance.”
Matar is adamant, though, that his memoir is not catharsis for him. He doesn’t like books that serve a purpose for somebody – “that feels to me like a betrayal of literature, as well intentioned as it is” – and reckons that when you write a book you have to leave all your causes, your ambitions behind you.
“That’s what I have tried to do; I don’t know whether I’ve succeeded. It’s not so much an attempt to arrive at a catharsis or to mark a loss. It’s more an exercise of curiosity. In my person maybe, but in literature I’m not interested in resolution ??? I’m interested in things opening not closing, really thinking about these things.”
He talks often about his curiosity, about being fascinated and bewildered by human nature.
“I use what I’ve gone through, these things, in order to tap into these streams of human nature,” he says. “This is what I know and it has allowed me some access into the nature of intimacy, the nature of grief, belonging to anything or to anyone, the bizarre organisation of human society, family, nations – all that stuff.”
Matar has always written, although he didn’t think of it as “writing”. He says in The Return that he sees words and images in the same way some conductors hear music all the time. But he didn’t have models of people who worked as writers.
“When you look at my generation of Latin American writers you see not only did the boom generation give them exposure to the world and great books but it gave them the respectability of being a writer – they don’t have to justify themselves. But in the Middle East, it still remains. It would be like some bizarre fringe scientist is looking at something and nobody understands.”
Many would-be writers hoped the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mafouz winning the Nobel Prize in 1988 might change the perception of writing in the region, but apparently it remains a problem.
As a boy, Matar’s language was Arabic. But at 12 he was sent to Britain for education and English became his stronger language. As a young man he met Mafouz at one of the weekly soirees the writer held – secretly after an assassination attempt – in Cairo. He found him kind and gentle but the as-yet unpublished Matar was made uneasy when the old master pointed out that writing in the English language involved “writing into that river”. But, says Matar, he was right. “Language is not just a code, you are writing into its history, into its tides.”
Writing in English was not a choice for him in the way, say, Joseph Conrad, a Pole, had to choose between writing in English or French. By then it was his language du jour.
He recently worked with a young Egyptian writer on a new translation into Arabic of The Country of Men. He felt uncomfortable about the experience – “a deathly sense of being detained” when he wanted to be elsewhere.
“I had somehow entertained the fantasy that once the book in you is translated into Arabic, it would somehow return to the language it was meant to be in. But I found that, no, it’s actually like any translation – it’s a corruption, it becomes hued ??? and that my ear, my linguistic enthusiasm is sharpist in English.”
In his novel Anatomy of a Disappearance – a father is kidnapped, a son must adjust to new, complicated circumstances – Matar refers to the guilt a survivor feels. I wondered if that was something he had experienced.
“I did. I don’t. I haven’t for a long time. I have grown out of it. Guilt is not the right word. Guilt harnesses your appetites a bit; I felt like my appetites weren’t as full blooded. But ??? there’s a lot of things I’m not sure about.”
He pauses briefly. “But one thing I’m definitely sure about is that life is for the living.”
The Return is published by Viking at $35. Hisham Matar is a guest at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, May 22-28 (swf.org广州桑拿论坛). He speaks at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne on May 30 (wheelercentre广州桑拿).