The Return by Hisham Matar
Review by Feroz Rather
During the days of popular revolt against Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime, Hisham Matar—the 47-year-old Libyan writer who has made London his home—calls an old man living in Zliten. “I watched them from my window,” the old man tells him. “They came with bulldozers and dug up the graves, one after the other. They burnt the corpses, and everyone is afraid to touch them.”
It is the dictator’s troops the old man is talking about, who upon their arrival in the coastal town between Tripoli and Misrata vandalize the graves of the dissidents. These are uncertain times, when the definitions of joy and grief are extraordinary. The old man feels fortunate. Unlike many other Libyan fathers, he has his son’s body at home. He has kept the air-condition on; he is safeguarding the corpse. For three full days, he has not allowed the body to stink.
The Return, brimming with such stories, appears after Matar’s two successful novels, In the Country of Men (2006) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011). Though Matar has chosen the medium of literary memoir this time, he hinges onto the subject matter that has always haunted him as man and writer—his father. A soldier in King Idris’s diplomatic service, Jaballa Matar served as the first secretary in the Libyan Mission to the United Nations. In the years following the coup of 1969, he became a businessman, importing Mitsubishi vehicles and Converse sports shoes to the Middle East. He was not only outspoken in his criticism of Muammar Gaddafi, he even created underground cells in Libya and an armed force in Chad to eventually act and overthrow the dictatorial regime. In 1990, he was living in exile with his family in Cairo when the Egyptian secret police abducted him and handed him over to Gaddafi’s forces. Hisham Matar was 19 at the time. In all the years since, the family received a few letters and an audio-tape from Jaballa Matar. And that is all they received.
The Return grapples with Matar’s failure to demystify the disappearance of his father, who was probably killed in Abu Salim during or around the massacre of 29 June 1996 in which 1,270 prisoners were killed. In the absence of any conclusive evidence, Matar cannot arrive at the finality of his father’s death. He is denied the solace of closure. The memory of his father follows him like his own diminished shadow as he walks through New York. It is on Broadway that the idea of returning to the home country after 33 years dawns like a terrifying revelation.
Matar writes fine, distilled prose. There is a certain humility and quietness to his voice. With the eyes of an architect and the hands of a stonemason, he molds his tragedy into a poet’s lament of loss. But what is admirable is that the book, despite its grim subject, has the propulsive plot of a political thriller and the depth and ambition of a treatise. In the chapter titled, “The Bullet,” while recounting his grandfather’s life, Matar creates a narrative of the modern political history of Libya. Grandfather Hamed, born in Ottomon Libya, fought against the Italian occupation under the leadership of Omar al-Mukhtar. In the stories that make up the family mythology, he supposedly stabbed an Italian officer in the neck in Benghazi. Despite the bullet wound that left “a small rosette just beneath the collarbone,” he lived long enough—112 years by some accounts—to see the reign of King Idris and two decades after Gaddafi took over. A small gash in the flesh of Libya, Matar reminds, the country was deeply wounded by Mussolini. The Fascist created a network of concentration camps and oversaw a campaign of genocide. The number of people who perished in these camps is not clear, but the intention to depopulate is. The official census records show that the population plummeted from 225,000 to 142,000.
In the United States, where Islamophobia is on rise and mosques are being burnt by white supremacists and religious fanatics, and where the current President is determined to block the entry of Muslims of certain nationalities into the country, I read The Return as it must be read: with a special pleasure and urgency. On every page, with his acute compass to peek into the hearts of mostly Muslim characters, Matar unravels the many layers of the underlying human complexity he experienced firsthand. If a crash course in Saussurean linguistics may dismayingly convince the zealots that the symbols they cling to and uphold are arbitrary and inauthentic in their significations, it is reading the prose of Matar that has the potential to cure them of their irritations and blight.
Feroz Rather is a doctoral student of Creative Writing at Florida State University. His novel-in-stories, The Night of Broken Glass, is forthcoming from HarperCollins.