Tuesday, October 21, 2008

In the country of men - Hisham Matar

Another debut novel, this time by this Anglo- Libyan author, about Suleiman, a nine-year old boy under the Gaddafi's rule . A commendable work for a debut novel and was short listed for Man Booker Prize in 2006.

Suleiman lives with his mother Najwa, and his father Faraj, who is on continuous travel for his business need. He thinks his mother is not well, usually when his father is away on tours, for which she takes medicine ( alcohol disguised as medicine to the child ) sourced through the baker Madji.

This is the summer vacation and Suleiman spends his time with friends, his mother and on the terrace where he has his set up of tools and other accessories. One of these days, his father is on travel as always, he and his mother were followed by another car on their way back from the market. He realised from his mother that they were the secret police from the revolutionary committee. He also suspects of seeing his father , who is supposed to be on business trip , in one of the clandestine apartments in the town, where he was accompanied by another person carrying a type-writer. The events soon take turn as Ustath Rashid, a professor, his neighbour and father of his close friend Kareem, was taken by the revolutionary committee as a traitor for bringing up agitation against the revolution.

Suleiman's father is the next suspect in line and with in few days, the revolutionary committee members, who arrested Kareem's father, appears in his house looking for his father. Moosa , a close associate of his father and an Egyptian by origin, manages to dissuade the team from search, not before they discovered his mothers drinking habit. It is obvious that the family has already earned the distrust of the regime and his father has to escape to safety. Moosa and Najwa burns all the books and other potential proofs before they were confiscated, but Suleiman recover one of the handwritten book which his father used to keep under his pillow, from burning. With the help of the powerful neighbour Ustath Jafer ( a Govt Official) his mother manages to save the father from the imminent death ( as happened to the professor, which was telecasted live to the horror of the family and the curiosity of young Suleiman) but not before being taken as a prisoner and interrogated. His father returns one night after being released from detention, and was kept away from Suleiman's view. For long he refused to believe and accept it as his father, until he was taken to the room and spoken to his father who is unrecognisable in the current state. By now Suleiman has already severed his relationship with all his friends, often fighting with them ( including his close friend Kareem, whom he called a traitor in the height of one argument) and was more and grew desperate with the events at home ( more with the elders who seems to be hiding many things from him).

Moosa has been deported to his home country soon after Suleiman's fathers release, and the family decides to save Suleiman from this mess and manages to send him away to Moosa at Cairo where he completes his study away from his home, parents and friends.

It's a book of growing up under the torture regime, where no one is above suspicion. Secret police, informers, fragile social network and family , the televised trials and execution are all influencing the child. There is also an issue of isolation from the society, and within family itself. The family structure itself is very week. Alcoholic mother, not so smooth relationship between his mother and father, his fathers clandestine ant-establishment activities, the excitement of the young boy in seeing the secret police ( he even befriends him) and the execution ( he notices the wet patch around the groin , the push by the executioners to the rope , the froth in the corner of the mouth).

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."

Mu-Ammar Gaddafi is also a character of the story with his omnipresence. Though his name is not used directly, he is referred as the Guide , his influence in the people are God-like.

It is difficult to write an entire book as told by a nine year old boy. Obvious things to the reader ( adult ) is not so for the young boy and he has a different meaning in each situation. Hisham Matar has done a good job in this part without getting into the adult zone of thinking. However, the main plot of anti-regime movement is not touched, may be because the kid who narrates the story is too ignorant of the fact. And that leaves the entire story a bit incomplete from the reader's point. One never know for what they have plotted ( all we know that it is for "Democracy now") and what is his fathers participation in the same. The last pages after the narrator is grown up and now works and lives in Egypt was also was a bit out of place, and spoils the flow of the narration.

The story is told by the young boy with no premonitions, no judgements, no secrets. But with his perception and associated immaturity, thus leaving many things un answered to the adult reader. Underlying to all these is the love he has for his mother, towards his friends, for Tripoli and his libyan life, which he carries with him in his journey to Cairo, and till date. Equally strong is the feeling of betrayal; of his friend Kareem by calling him traitor in front of others, betrayal of his neighboring boys , betraying of his mother ( parents ) and the betrayal of his homeland.

A fluid, very well written prose , never getting carried away by emotions, Matar has brought out a decent fictional work.
In the Country of Men
Hisham Matar
249 Pages
Rs 295/-
More reads : NY Times, Guardian Review, Complete Review


Stephen said...

I really enjoy ethnic novels but this is not of the same high standard of Khaled Hosseini and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

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Brain Drain said...

Thanks Stephen..

Is this really and ethnic novel ? If so, every other novel written in a culture which is not the 'first world' countries would have to be called ethnic. that is not the discussion point.

Khaled Hosseini ? I'm not so sure..

Chimamanda , yes. Her first two novels have some brilliance in it. Literary value beyond the 'curiosity' factor.

The issue with "In the country of Men" is that he had taken it up with the view of a 9 yr old boy. What a nine year old boiy can comprehend of the happening around him has a limitation. The author can not come out of this limitation to present the 'elderly' view, which the reader has to deduce.