‘In the Country of Men’ by Hisham Matar

9780241957073Not surprisingly, nine year-old Suleiman (Slooma) does not fully grasp events going on around him – not helped by the fact his wealthy parents, in order to protect him, are choosing not to tell him very much.

It’s 1979 Tripoli and ten years after the Gaddafi people’s revolution. But Libya is now closely monitored, awash with surveillance, secret police and a culture of reporting anti-revolutionary activity. Yet Suleiman’s father, Faraj, a successful businessman, is involved in clandestine activities against ‘The Guide’.

In the Country of Men is not a novel focusing on specific historical content or events – it is more an emotional journey as seen through the eyes of a nine year-old, resulting in events being frequently misunderstood or distorted. Thus, the narrow rituals of childhood are elevated in importance – games in the street with friends, the mood swings of his young alcoholic mother, gifts from his father’s overseas trips. Away from dusty Mulberry Street and home, events play themselves out without a great deal of impact. Until, that is, Ustath Rashid is arrested for anti-revolutionary sentiments. Next-door neighbours and the father of Slooma’s best friend, Kereem, his arrest sends events into a tailspin.

A narrative of love and betrayal, In the Country of Men is a lyrical yet unsentimental portrait of both a family and a country. Betrayal runs rampant throughout – Gaddafi’s to Libya, Faraj to his son, Slooma himself to both his parents as well as Kereem. But below the surface is the tenderness and confusion of love.

Suleiman makes mistakes in his desperate need for the love of his father. Forced into a marriage at 14, Slooma’s mother finds solace in illegal schnapps: like Scheherazade, she tells stories of her life and betrayal by her family to her son long into the night. But, with Faraj’s arrest, so a deep love for her husband comes to the fore. It is only years later, with Suleiman a 24 year-old living in Egypt, that the tragic sadness of events begin to fall into place. And by then it is mostly too late.

Born in New York in 1970 of Libyan parents, Hisham Matar returned to live in Tripoli with his parents when he was three years old. His family was forced to flee to Egypt just six years later due to political persecution. Matar’s father disappeared in 1990 and has been missing ever since. In the Country of Men, his debut novel, may be a fiction, but it is very much a story of the heart.

Shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize, London-based Hisham Matar, with his debut novel, lost out to Kiran Desai and The Inheritance of Loss.


‘We Need New Names’ by NoViolet Bulawayo

68.Noviolet-Bulawayo-We-Need-New-NamesWe Need New Names is the powerful literary debut from NoViolet Bulawayo, a Zimbabwean now living in the US. Shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, she is (surprisingly) the first black African female writer to achieve this distinction. (Why Aminatta Forna was not shortlisted in 2010 for The Memory of Love is a mystery – but that’s another story).

A novel of two distinct halves, We Need New Names is something of a grower. We’re first introduced to the voice of ten year-old Darling in the shantytown of Paradise. This is her story, seen from her perspective and in her (fresh, evocative, ‘this is how it is’) language. There is a sense of acceptance, knowing no different as Darling and friends Bastard, Godknows, Sbho, Stina and Chipo are forced to entertain themselves with no school and little food, living, as they do, in extreme poverty.

Whether it’s stealing guavas from the wealthy neighbourhood of Budapest, playing games of their own making, dreaming of a better life in America or watching, usually from a distance, adult life, these savvy, street smart kids are funny yet unsettling. Darling herself lives in part with her grandmother (Mother of Bones); her absent father is in South Africa but who sends no money or word. Bastard is the leader of the group, influenced as he is by the strutting paramilitaries who are running amok in the country. Eleven year-old Chipo is pregnant.

But Darling has an escape clause – Aunt Fostalina, living in Detroit (or Destroyed, Michygen). The second half of the novel finds Darling dealing with the very different world of the much-dreamed about better life. The fact she is an illegal (as are Fostalina and her Ghanaian husband, Kojo) means Darling can never return (although it’s many years before she realises her situation).

The American element to the story is much more overtly politicised. It is Darling dealing with immigration and assimilation whilst trying to remain connected to the world she has left behind (Chipo has named her daughter Darling). Through her own observations over time, Darling slowly strips away her American dream. But it’s also a time of reflection and some understanding of the socioeconomic collapse of her childhood Zimbabwe.

We Need New Names is a profoundly poignant and moving book, written as a series of interrelated vignettes – a stream of consciousness and experiences of Darling growing up in Paradise and, later, Detroit. On the one hand it is a coming-of-age story: on the other, it is a deeply political observation of otherness and the outsider, of cultural differences and cultural expectations.

When things fall apart, the children of the land scurry and scatter like birds escaping a burning sky… Look at the children of the land leaving in droves, leaving their own land with bleeding wounds on their bodies and shock on their faces and blood in their hearts and hunger in their stomachs and grief in their footsteps. Leaving their mothers and fathers and children behind, leaving their umbilical chords underneath the soil, leaving the bones of their ancestors in the earth, leaving everything that makes them who and what they are, leaving because it is no longer possible to stay…

Look at them leaving in droves despite knowing they will be welcomed with restraint, knowing they will have to sit on one buttock because they must not sit comfortably lest they be asked to rise and leave, knowing they will speak in dampened whispers because they must not let their voices drown those of the owners of the land, knowing they will have to walk on their toes because they must not leave footprints on the new earth… Look at them leaving in droves, arm in arm with loss and lost….

‘In a Strange Room’ by Damon Galgut

in-a-strange-roomSince starting on my personal determination to read all winning and shortlisted books of both the Man Booker and Miles Franklin awards, new names (to me) are constantly popping up. South African novelist and playwright Damon Galgut is just such a writer.

In a Strange Room is Galgut’s seventh book and was nominated for the 2010 Man Booker Prize – yet he is no stranger to awards. His earlier The Good Doctor (2003) also found itself on the Booker shortlist and picked up the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa).

A relatively short novel (around 180 pages), In a Strange Room is a startlingly beautiful yet melancholic book, a haunting evocation of place and time. Divided into three journeys, there is a restlessness and sense of placelessness that pervades as the protagonist, Damon, leaves South Africa to journey through Greece, Lesotho, India. He seemingly belongs nowhere, living temporarily in Cape Town or Pretoria when ‘home’ yet constantly on the move when away from his country of birth – “never going towards something, but always away, away.”

Homoerotic undertones underscore the first two of Damon’s journeys – firstly with the beautiful German, Rainer, and later with the Swiss youth, Jerome. But the relationships are never consummated in spite of reciprocal intimations, as “one is too scared and the other too proud.” Yet the attraction remains, driving Damon, in the case of Jerome, to join him and his travelling companions across Africa (Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya) and, later, to travel to Switzerland itself.

All three journeys end, in their own way, in tragedy, with the third and final story, The Guardian, harrowing for Damon as he cares for the psychotic Anna whilst dealing with life-sapping Indian bureaucracy. It’s claustrophobic and insular (unlike the previous journeys and their distant horizons) with the internal landscapes of doubt, failure and self-worth explored in elegant, minimalist language.

Part travelogue, part memoire (based, apparently, on true events), part novel, In a Strange Room is something of a hybrid. Written mainly in the third person but occasionally switching to first person singular adds to the unsettling otherness and ambiguity of the book. Such a technique also enhances the validity of observation, providing an objective perspective on events as well as opinions.

Only at the end do we get a sense of any permanence for Damon, although experience has shown that this may be temporary.

A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there … In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return.