By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Toward the end of this eloquent memoir, Hisham Matar quotes these words, spoken by Odysseus’ son Telemachus in “The Odyssey”:
I wish at least I had some happy man
as father, growing old in his own house —
but unknown death and silence are the fate
Mr. Matar has spent his entire adult life grappling with that same sense of loss and uncertainty about the fate of his missing father. Jaballa Matar was a leading Libyan dissident who was kidnapped in 1990 by agents working for Muammar el-Qaddafi, that country’s dictator, and sent to the notorious Abu Salim prison in Tripoli. Friends and political supporters risked their lives to smuggle out the occasional letter from him, but after a couple of years, those letters stopped.
The younger Mr. Matar did not know whether his father died in a 1996 prison massacre that took the lives of some 1,200 people; whether he was tortured or beaten to death in some grim interrogation room; or whether, miraculously, he had managed to escape or survive. After Qaddafi was toppled in 2011, Mr. Matar, who had been living abroad in exile, traveled back to his family’s homeland to try to find out what happened. This is the story he tells in “The Return.”
Mr. Matar is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, “In the Country of Men” and “Anatomy of a Disappearance,” which also deal with loss and separation and the shadow of a powerful activist father. Here, in “The Return,” he writes with both a novelist’s eye for physical and emotional detail, and a reporter’s tactile sense of place and time. The prose is precise, economical, chiseled; the narrative elliptical, almost musical, cutting back and forth in time between the near present, Mr. Matar’s childhood memories of growing up in Libya, and pieced-together accounts of his father’s work as an opposition leader and his imprisonment.
“The Return” is, at once, a suspenseful detective story about a writer investigating his father’s fate at the hands of a brutal dictatorship, and a son’s efforts to come to terms with his father’s ghost, who has haunted more than half his life by his absence. It’s the story of Mr. Matar’s complicated feelings about his adult life in London: both “the guilt of having lived a free life” and his attempts to use that freedom to petition various governments and human rights organizations for information about his father and imprisoned relatives. And it’s a story about exile, about how Mr. Matar; his brother, Ziad; and their mother strove to create new lives for themselves abroad — they fled Libya in 1979 — and about Mr. Matar’s struggles to “live away from places and people I love.” “Joseph Brodsky was right,” he writes. “So were Nabokov and Conrad. They were artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country. What you have left behind has dissolved. Return and you will face the absence or the defacement of what you treasured.”
This is just one of the emotions Mr. Matar experiences during a return trip to Libya in 2012. There, he talks with relatives and his father’s friends, many of whom spent years in prison, where they were tortured and starved of hope and sunlight. He hears about the elaborate methods prisoners used to survive and communicate in prison, and he is given hints of what his father must have endured in Abu Salim. He wonders how his father was changed by his imprisonment, and how he might have been altered or reduced.
Hisham Matar Credit Diana Matar
The stories he recounts are harrowing. His uncle Hmad, an aspiring playwright, and cousin Ali, an economics student, ended up spending two decades in Qaddafi’s prisons. His uncle Mahmoud maintained his love of literature during his 21 years in Abu Salim by jotting poems on both sides of a thin pillowcase that he sewed into the waistband of his underwear for safekeeping. His cousin Izzo, who had been studying to become a civil engineer, was killed by a sniper during the Libyan revolution, and Izzo’s older brother, Hamed, was wounded but insisted on returning to the front.
Mr. Matar’s visit to Libya in early 2012 occurred during “a precious window” of time when justice and democracy and the rule of law seemed within reach. But things swiftly unraveled as rivalries between heavily armed militias escalated, and the Islamic State gained a foothold in the chaos.
“The dead would mount,” Mr. Matar writes. “Universities and schools would close. Hospitals would become only partially operative. The situation would get so grim that the unimaginable would happen: People would come to long for the days of Qaddafi.”
Mr. Matar’s account of the suffering in Libya — under Qaddafi, and now, in the violent aftermath of the revolution — reads like a microcosm of what the Middle East has experienced as the democratic hopes fostered by the Arab Spring have crashed and burned in one country after another. At the same time, “The Return” stands as a haunting memoir about one family, and one son’s Telemachus-like search for his father.
Credit Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times
Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between
By Hisham Matar