‘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In the Country of Men is not a novel focusing on specific historical content or events – it is more an emotional journey as seen through the eyes of a nine year-old, resulting in events being frequently misunderstood or distorted.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.

 

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‘The Inheritance of Loss’ by Kiran Desai

9780141027289High in the Himalayas, a large, decrepit house is home to three people (and a dog) and their dreams. Thousands of miles away, a young illegal immigrant sleeps on the floor of his workplace kitchen in a Harlem café.

Different backgrounds and ideals separate them – yet they are at the centre of revolution and change as The Inheritance of Loss uses the Gorkhaland movement and the civil and ethnic unrest of the 1980s in the Darjeeling region as its background. The loss of identity, personal and collectively, in a post-colonial India is the central theme of this powerful (albeit, to my mind, rambling and patchy) winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

The two central characters are Biju and Sai. He finds himself as an illegal in New York desperately attempting to escape the poverty of his life at home but, instead, finds that squalor of poverty is global. Sai, as a 16 year-old orphan, finds herself reliant on her maternal grandfather and his unkempt crumbling home high in the mountainous Kalimphong.

A retired Cambridge-educated judge, Jemubhai Patel is everything the civil insurgency is moving against – more English than the English (in spite of him never being accepted, as an Indian, by the very people he aspires), he abhors his own country’s customs, to the extent he eats chapatis with a knife and fork. He treats his ageing dog, Mutt, better than most of his neighbours (and certainly his now-deceased wife, whom he sent back to live with her family, so disgusted was he with her ‘India-ness’).

The Inheritance of Loss is littered with a snapshot of characters reflecting the various political and social thoughts of the day (with an overt bias towards ‘British Indians’): the young Nepalese, Gyan, tutor to Sai and drawn towards the revolutionary ideals but in need of the blossoming relationship with his student; the Jane Eyre reading, marmalade eating sisters Noni and Lola; the traditional cook, father of Biju and indentured employee to the judge. Their lives are threaded throughout as the narrative unfolds – but here’s the problem.

There are so many lives, backwards and forwards in time, that too much of The Inheritance of Loss remains unfocussed and unresolved. In attempting to be all encompassing and casting a wide net, Kiran Desai takes on too much. Political commentary and social family saga intertwined are not new. But somehow, there are times when she slips into polemic that, whilst interesting, the execution falls short.

And there’s just no joy!