{Book Expert} A Human Look at Libya

Need a crash course on Libya? FOF Linda Wolfe reviews In the Country of Men, a “page-turner” that provides an inside look at this nation in the news.

I expect that like me you’ve been thinking a good deal about Libya lately. So although I generally review new books, I thought I’d call your attention to a haunting novel about Libya that came out in 2007 and some of you may have missed. An extraordinary work, In the Country of Men by Libyan exile Hisham Matar, is the story of a nine-year-old Libyan boy whose businessman father is involved with a group of activists who, back in 1979, are trying to overthrow Muhammar Gaddafi.

Young Suleiman is unaware of his father’s secret activities. Nor does she comprehend the climate of suspicion, sadism, and terror that surrounds and threatens his friends, neighbors, and family. When his beloved mother takes to drinking whenever his father goes away on a “business trip,” Suleiman accepts her explanation that she is sick, and that the clear liquid she consumes in copious quantities is medicine. When his best friend’s father, a gentle art historian, is suddenly arrested and viciously beaten, Suleiman goes along with the neighborhood boys who call the man a traitor, and so great is his boyish desire to be accepted by the other kids that, siding with them, he taunts and shuns his best friend.

Suleiman eventually awakens to what is really going on in the world around him, but not before his childish blindness and his all-too-human desire to belong cause him to engage in increasingly dishonest and cruel behavior, and eventually – inadvertently – to betray his father. That betrayal will in turn cause his father, Baba, to betray not just his beliefs but his friends, the men to whom he has always been closest. The “country of men” is one in which inherent goodness and loyalty are not only stamped out but inwardly suppressed, subsumed by the need to get by, to survive

Matar’s own father, while in exile in Egypt, was kidnapped, tortured and imprisoned by Gaddafi in 1990 and has not been heard from in over fifteen years. A brilliant writer, Matar portrays the “madness that is Libya” in a series of swift, subtle, and utterly devastating scenes. Yet this is not merely a political novel. It far transcends that genre by being a deeply psychological work, an exploration of how a boy matures. Important in Suleiman’s development is not only the growth of his sense of right and wrong, but his moving from a boy’s initial love object – his mother – into the world of men. At first it is Suleiman’s mother, not Baba, who is the center of his universe. “If love starts somewhere,” he writes of her, “if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her.” She bore him at fifteen, after being forced into marriage by her father because she was seen having coffee with a boy. No matter that the marriage is a success and his mother loves Baba. Suleiman longs to “change the past, to rescue that girl from her black day.” There is a deep Freudian undercurrent in the novel, a hint at the unspeakable idea that Suleiman betrays his father not only out of innocence and ignorance, but in an Oedipal quest to rid himself of his competitor for his mother’s love. Hidden and even subconscious motivations can be manipulated by an evil society.

The emotional depth of this novel make the work far more sophisticated and subtle than, say, The Kite Runner, of which it may at times remind you.

Complex and gripping, In the Country of Men is a searing page-turner, a book that you will keep you on the edge of your seat and which you – like me – will never be able to forget.

NOTE: Matar has a new novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, coming out this August.

Portrait of Hisham Matar via Good Reads.

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