In the Country of Men
In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
As we are currently unable to travel, I have made it my project to read a novel from every country in the world – although I do rather hope that the lockdown will finish before I come to the end of having read roughly two hundred books. Incidentally, this is an idea I got from listening to an interview on the radio on one of my very last journeys to the BMI just before the second national lockdown!
In the Country of Men is the 2006 debut novel by British-Libyan author Hisham Matar. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Set in Tripoli in the summer of 1979, this Bildungsroman is narrated by the young boy Suleiman, who is growing up in the Gaddafi regime. Through his eyes, we discover the secrets his parents and the adults around him keep. There is his mother’s ‘illness’, medicated by bottles she obtains from the baker’s shop hidden in black bags. There are the stories she tells from her tragic youth, which led her to marry Suleiman’s father. She is unhappy in her marriage, but not for the reasons which we first assume. There is Suleiman’s father, supposedly away on business abroad, until Suleiman spots him entering a building in the city centre, disguised by wearing dark sunglasses. There are tapped phone calls, hidden books (and even the burning of books), and men sitting in cars parked outside homes, silently watching.
Slowly, as we follow events unfold through Suleiman’s eyes, we piece together the secrets that his parents are hiding. But as the narrator is nine years old, there is only so much he understands about the adults’ actions. There is a constant sense of unease, of imminent danger. The book is an uncomfortable read at times; there are disturbing scenes of violence and seeing it through the eyes of a nine-year old makes it even more gut-wrenching. What I found even more disturbing however was observing Suleiman’s own actions: a nine-year old boy trying to make sense of the world around him and trying to find his place in society, without understanding the consequences of his own actions. Then there is the violence in the games played by Suleiman and his friends on the streets of their neighbourhood in Tripoli. Perhaps this is even harder to digest than the violence perpetrated by the grown-ups.
Having said all of this, Matar’s writing is often poetic and beautifully evocative. I could almost feel the heat of the scorching summer sun and the breeze from the Mediterranean sea.
To sum up, this is not a comfortable book to read, but it is not meant to be. It is an important novel that addresses questions such as identity, exile, and relationships between parents and children, all of this against the backdrop of a historical depiction of Libya under Gaddafi’s dictatorship.
If you have previously enjoyed books such as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, this might be the next read for you.