I know very little about Libya. I don't suppose this is so surprising for my generation; I came of age politically in 2001, when I was eighteen, and was initiated into a world haemorrhaging after the shock of 9/11. "Terrorism", Islamic fundamentalism and the Middle East have been the focus ever since. Iraq, Iran, Afganistan - I feel like I'm at least partly familiar with these places and their recent histories; Israel and the Palestinian territories I studied at school. In contrast the Muslim countries of North Africa - Algeria and Libya especially - have dropped from the media map somewhat. I know the name Gaddafi and I know, from the trusty C4 news, that America has recently reopened diplomatic channels with his Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya; I know that Libya has a shaky human rights record and no freedom of the press. That's about it.
Reading In the Country of Men, Hisham Matar's Booker and Guardian Prize long-listed debut, has been a terrible revelation. I noted in my comments on the Guardian Award that it shared something of its political thrust and relevance with Lorraine Adams' Harbor (about Algerian refugees in the USA) and so it does: both are novels of horror and elegy, dedicated to places that the West has forgotten in recent years. Both are also about innocence lost to brutality and because of the imposition of ideological hegemony; both are harrowing and difficult reads, and both are very important.
Sulieman is nine years old, the son of a relatively prosperous business man living in Tripoli in the late 1970s. His family's white-washed house sits in the prettily named Mulberry Street, a cool haven from the hot sun and forever filled with edible treats; the facade is every kind of harmony and contentment. The reality, however, is rather different. Sulieman's father is often away, apparently on business abroad, and his mother, Najwa, is always "ill" during these extended absences. Late into the night she takes her special "medicine", supplied to her in a brown bag from under the local baker's counter, and develops a delirious "fever". Waking her son she raves at him and begs for comfort, telling him terrible stories of her girlhood, her forced engagement and the subsequent marital rape that led to his birth. She even divulges the desperate attempts to abort him, and then regrets immediately her honesty, calling him her "prince" and her saviour, searching out his love again.
At one level Sulieman rationalises his mother's alcoholism as a physical affliction, something that happened to her because of the bad herbs she took to stop her pregnancy. In a way he is right: Najwa has been emotionally damaged by the teenage marriage and motherhood (we find out later that she was only 14 at Sulieman's birth) that thwarted her desire to study and to have a career of her own. Punished by her father for innocently holding hands with a boy in a cafe, threatened with death if she proved dishonoured, she has found herself the mother of a confused child and the dependent wife of a routinely absent husband at only 23. But on another level Sulieman considers his mother's illness to be his fault. Her passive-agressive parenting style makes him feel both rejected and desperately needed, and because she often casts him as her protector during her weepy rants, he berates and blames himself for his inability to save her, to go back in time and sweep her away to safety.
His favourite story is that of Scheherazade and he implicitly sees the tragic storyteller in his mother; she too keeps telling tales to put off both the physical death once threatened by her father (who has become a classic villain for her, forever sharpening his knife) and the emotional death that her current life entails. The problem, of course, is that Sulieman is not in a position to do any saving. He is stuck in the story with her - her endless babbling is at him and he'll never be able to step far enough away from it. Indeed, rescuing her would be a negation of himself: without her pain he would not exist. Parts of Sulieman knows this as well as we do but he still can't discard the guilt he feels at his failure to be "the prince" she keeps asking for; his childhood with her is one of terrible longing and loathing, love and hate. At one point he remembers himself imagining her death and cannot decide whether the sensation it gave him in his stomach was one of fear or excitement or both.
Unbeknownst to Sulieman, Najwa's "illness" is also precipitated by fear, not for herself but for the husband whom she has come to depend upon. She is terrified that he will be revealed for what he is, a political dissident calling for democratic elections and free speech. Of course, in time, this is precisely what happens. First a neighbouring scholar, the father of Sulieman's best friend, is arrested by smart men in a white sedan, and then his own father disappears, plunging the boy into a nightmarish world of informers, interrogations and televised executions.
Narrated by the adult Sulieman, a man evidently broken and still confused about the exact details of his past, parts of In the Country of Men make for honestly gut-wrenching reading. It isn't something to enjoy or for pleasure; it's purpose is to break the skin on some nasty truthes. And it's not only the material that bruises, even though Matar doesn't hold back on the beatings and hangings or the general repressiveness of Libya's dictatorship. It is also the nature in which the reader experiences it: a nine year old boy sees many things but he understands hardly anything and, occasionally, disastrously misunderstands things. Meanwhile the adult reader (and the adult Sulieman) is all too aware of how inexorably tragedy is closing in.
The child Sulieman doesn't know the rules of the adult world his father's arrest reveals to him. Brought up with the Gaddafi regime and comforted by its familiarity, he doesn't really comprehend his father's beliefs or why they're considered wrong. He goes around the neighbourhood tearing up the democratic tracts that keep appearing on doorsteps and, as zealous as his school friends, lobs them over garden walls, never realising his father is their author. When his friend's father is taken by the secret police, and even after he is tortured on television, Sulieman taunts and hates him as a traitor. Something in him knows this is wrong and that the events he is witnessing have another, different moral dimension to the one ingrained by Gaddafi. But there is a disconnect between his child's actions and his adult's understanding: like any kid in the playground he attacks the weaknesses he recognises. It is only when his own father is arrested and another man is publically executed, that Sulieman begins to break down. But he still doesn't understand. He lashes out, raging one minute and incommunicative the next. In an attempt to comfort himself he goes and listens to Gaddafi giving speeches on the radio and is soothed.
Around him adults think he sees and understands far more than he does. They misinterpret his actions as 'knowing' when they are precisely the opposite. At one point he saves a book of his father's, Democracy Now, from a fire his mother has made to destroy evidence. Observers believe he does it because he understands its contents and is implicitly supporting his father; actually his reasons are many and muddled. At first he does it on impulse. He doesn't know why his mother is burning books and thinks his father will be angry, and so he saves a book to placate him. Later, when his father praises Najwa for burning everything, Sulieman becomes angry himself and tries to get rid of the book by giving it to the man who always sits outside their house and keeps asking him for evidence to "prove his father isn't a traitor". Then, finally, when he returns the book to his father, he does it because he can't bear to see it anymore; his father chooses to read it as a vindication of his beliefs.
Watching Sulieman stumble through the novel like this is persistently discomforting. It's like that point in a film where you will the main character: "don't do that, don't do that!" Your superior knowledge of what is happening renders you somehow more powerless than the victim - it's like watching a moth beat itself again and again on a light until, finally exhausted, it dies. What is most distressing though is that behind it all is a reality. Matar catches Sulieman at the most vulnerable stage in his life, while his mind is malleable and as yet unformed or informed, and, doing so, intimates his early ruin. He caught me in a vulnerable place too, where my ignorance of Libya meets with the powerlessness and ripe anger I feel when I think about such psychological injustice. Undoubtedly, circumstances like these play out everyday in different parts of the world, often unheeded.
To what extent In the Country of Men is an autobiographical novel is hard to say, although the bare facts of Sulieman's life story seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to Matar's. Either way it has that rough feel of lived experience under its fresh veneer of prose. Polished and well-turned, it does its dark work well; you can see why it has already been translated into 14 different languages and why its being so widely long-listed.
I had a happy Amazon spree this afternoon, courtesy of the Directors of the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York, who gave me a cheque for £75 for being such an eloquent personage. (Apparently one of my essays - the one on merchet marriage fines in 14th century manor court rolls - was awarded the highest mark in this year's Masters.) I've been so starved of book buying for so long I went a little crazy and got myself these: The Apple: New Crimson Petal Stories by Michel Faber (I had to have it!); How To Read A Novel: A User's Guide by John Sutherland (the Guardian Review has been excerpting it and I've enjoyed what I've seen); The Fall of Kings by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman (the last of the wonderful Riverside books and the only one I haven't read now); and finally a lovely copy of Tennyson's Idyll's of the King, which I've been coveting for a while. Not bad for under £20 in total. :-)