Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Patches of mercy In The Country Of Men

"I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away. It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay still and brilliant beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional grey patches of mercy carved into the white of eveything".
In The Country Of Men by Hisham Matar is that wonderful thing, a short book of such tender simplicity that it almost conceals its emotional pull until the end, where I found myself suppressing sobs on the train to Birmingham. It's a book about many things: childhood, politics, friendship, betrayal, fear, and - chiefly - love, but it is also a pleasingly direct read, told through the eyes of a nine year old child growing up in Gaddafi's brutal Libya and finding the security of his world thrust apart by forces which he cannot understand. Matar is strong on the confusion of approaching adolescence, and remarkable on loyalty. Young Slooma, the book's protagonist, is helpless but suffused with love for his parents and his friends - and yet as the Revolutionary Committee close in on his activist father, he is unable to discern which way to turn, giving away good men with small mistakes and rashly tearing at the necessarily taut threads of friendship which exist between the children of Mulberry Street, the children of traitors, government officials and spies. Matar writes:

"By rushing to my rescue Sharief had split the sea, created an undertow which would pull me even further away from Kareem. We drift through allegiances, those we are born into and those we are claimed by, always estranging ourselves".
Finally estranged from all that he knows, Slooma is ultimately exiled, and it is through the nostalgic eyes of the exile that Tripoli is so delicately and sensually drawn; evocative descriptions of the turquoise sea and dusty streets seem somehow all to be seen at a remove, dreamlike and shivering in the sun, never as real as the vividly abrupt moments of terror, the maleavolent spies and intercepted phone calls, the welt marks criss-crossed across his father's back, although even in these nightmarish visions Matar's eye is needle-eye keen, describing an activist pleading with his executioner as he is pulled towards the gallows:

"He reminded me of the way a shy woman would resist her friends' invitation to dance, pulling her shoulders up to her ears and waving her index finger nervously in front of her mouth".
When the grisly job is done, his fathers' friend hanged in front of a crowd and televised, Slooma surveys the aftermath with a child's unknowing comprehension - the crowd dance around the corpse, pulling its' legs, and for Slooma they seem to look "like children satisfied with a swing they had just made". Not long after, his father is returned, having betrayed his comrades, and his son is forced to come to terms with two lifelong symbols of his shame: a perpetual feeling, "a kind of quiet panic, as if any moment the rug could be pulled from beneath my feet", and another "distant reverberation [...] I often find a shameful pleasure in submitting to authority". And, in exile, there are other repurcussions.

"I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss. I am both surprised and repulsed, for example, by my exagerrated sentiment when parting with people I am not intimate with, promising impossible reunions."
It is the family he loves which Slooma, finally sent away, can not know, and this knowledge permeates the text; it is a treatise on remembered (so never entirely lost) love - love which overcomes everything - principles, duties and loyalties. This faith in love, love between family members and love for one's homeland, means that even where the book ripples uncomfortably with the darkest of secrets - for it is also the tale of his mother's childhood, given away and abandoned likewise, not to exile but to an unmet husband - it retains an idealistic and melancholy optimism. The final few pages are amongst the most moving I've read. In The Country Of Men is a quiet, humane work of genius.

No comments: