By LORRAINE ADAMS
What can a child know about totalitarianism?In Hisham Matar’s exceptional first novel, this question transcends the psychological to yield something rare in contemporary fiction:
a sophisticated storybook inhabited by archetypes, told with a 9-year-old’s logic, written with the emphatic and memorable lyricism of verse.
The wonderfully original is anathema to most marketing campaigns, so don’t let anyone tell you, as publicists in Britain did last summer when “In the Country of Men” first appeared, that this is a Libyan “Kite Runner.” Matar’s fictional creation could be set anywhere: Libya, his homeland, has been pared here of most of its idiosyncrasies, honed into the totalitarian Ur-state. And unlike Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling account of two boys in Afghanistan, Matar’s work is free of both cliché and padding. What he renders goes beyond topicality. He has produced a timeless portrait of the infantilism of evil.
“In the Country of Men” brings to mind “1984,” “Fahrenheit 451” and the other great science fiction of totalitarianism in the way it posits a cruelly simplified and nonsensical universe. The young boy who is its first-person narrator can only sometimes make this world coherent. Why does his mother take her “medicine” and become sick? His best friend informs him that all women are sick. Can this be so? He has his doubts. How is it that his parents insist his father has gone on a business trip, when the boy has just spotted him walking in the town square? Why, since his father loves books, does the narrator’s mother suddenly burn them? Why does she react so violently when she sees him with the pockmarked man who sits outside their house in a white car, a man who gives him candy and asks for the names of his father’s friends?
Throughout, the narrator turns his questioning in on himself. It is here that one of Matar’s most powerful themes, the convoluted roots of betrayal, slowly takes shape. The boy betrays his best friend, his mother and his father’s closest friend — and would, if not for developments elsewhere, also betray his father. Alongside his faithlessness, his capacity for sadism particularizes. He throws a rock, and although he denies he aimed at a seriously impaired friend, a boy he respects, he nonetheless badly injures him. He tries to save the neighborhood beggar from drowning, then inexplicably finds himself kicking the man in the face.
Credit Dan James
The boy interrogates himself after each episode, weak with shame. But then morning comes, what he experienced recedes, and its lessons fail to take hold. Gradually, we begin to apprehend the ways in which any despotic system is like any boy’s inner life. Short-lived in their affections, easily offended, impressed with showboating stadiums of cheering automatons, blindly vicious, the boy and the system embody a topsy-turvy puerility. As in Orwell’s famous formulation — “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength” — the world has lost its definitions, or, in Matar’s formulation, it has yet to learn them.
The adult reader naturally sees what the boy cannot. The sick mother he fantasizes about is actually something else — the victim as drunk. His father’s friend, a classicist, refuses to betray the boy’s father; his nobility and knowledge of history are intimately connected. The all-knowing Guide, whose portrait hangs everywhere, is, of course, Muammar el-Qaddafi. The neighbor across the street, called an “antenna” because he works for the domestic intelligence service, is “able to put people behind the sun.” The self-numbing survivor, the moral chronicler, the guide and the spy are all fixtures of totalitarian society.
Matar’s understanding may feel so refined because it’s distilled from the long contemplation of his own experiences. Like the narrator, he was born in 1970 and last saw Libya in 1979. His father, a dissident former diplomat exiled in Egypt, was kidnapped there in 1990 and imprisoned and tortured in Tripoli. He was last heard from in 1995. Qaddafi’s regime imprisoned or hanged three of Matar’s cousins, an uncle and several friends. In interviews and in his writing, he maintains a public composure. As a novelist, his self-control is impressive.
It also helps produce the book’s poetic prose. On the very first page, the boy describes a tree outside his mother’s bedroom window, “its green shy in the early light.” The sunglasses worn by his father are “two dark lenses curved like the humpbacks of turtles over his eyes.” The boy’s mother’s voice is “like a small nervous fish alone in the deep.” The beggar’s “toenails were like bird beaks.”
The novel’s strengths combine in what is perhaps its most horrifying and important scene when the boy, his mother and a friend watch a televised execution, common in Qaddafi’s Libya, that in the novel takes place in a basketball arena. The boy sees their next-door neighbor made to climb a “wide, sturdy-looking aluminum ladder,” and notices how “at every rung he stopped and begged for mercy.”
The hanging inflames the spectators. “He was propped up, slapped a couple of times across the face, then turned toward the camera. We could see now that his trousers were wet. Something yellow appeared from his mouth and seemed to grow. … The crowd spilled down on to the court now. … A couple of men hugged and dangled from his ankles, then waved to others to come and do the same. They looked like children satisfied with a swing they had just made.”
Lorraine Adams, a writer in residence at the New School and the author of a novel, “Harbor,” is a regular contributor to the Book Review.
New York Time