Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men

What is it with writers these days and this fad for telling the story from a child’s point of view? First David Mitchell, then Edward St. Aubyn, then M.J. Hyland and now Hisham Matar. What started off as a clever party trick is rapidly becoming a kind of cottage industry [1]. Did every publisher in the UK woke up one day and decided that what the market really needed was a book with a child narrator? Or is it just that truly adult points of view have become so rare in the world we live in, that writers feel compelled to see the world through the eyes of a 9 year old in order to render it more accurately?

At any rate, nine is the age of Hisham Matar’s protagonist in his Booker shortlisted novel In the Country of Men. This narrator’s name is Suleiman (Slooma to his friends) and he’s the only child of fairly well-off parents living in a quiet little suburb in Qaddafi controlled Libya. The first thing you learn about Slooma is that his home life is far from ideal. His mother, forced into an early marriage by her parents and made a mother when she was barely 15, is a lonely, disenchanted woman, a closet alcoholic, a truly desperate housewife. Aha! you think. This is going to be a novel about the isolation and subjugation of women in patriarchal societies, with perhaps (this after Slooma finds his mother and a neighbour dancing together) some issues of sexual orientation thrown in for good measure.

You couldn’t be more wrong. When the shades of the prison house finally begin to close upon Slooma, they are, literally, prison bars. Libya is a land ruled by a dictatorship of Islamist fundamentalists, and the forces of revolution are constantly brewing. One such plot is brought to light, and turns out to include a college professor who lives in the neighbourhood and is the father of Slooma’s best friend. Pretty soon it becomes clear that Slooma’s own father is implicated somehow. The agents of the police state are moving into Slooma’s quiet neighbourhood, their arrival in his life a physical metaphor for his emergence into political awareness. Gone is the naivete and innocence of Slooma’s childhood, in its place the air is thick with deception and intrigue, friend is betraying friend, neighbour is telling on neighbour, books are being burnt, evidence destroyed, terrible interrogations and executions are being broadcast on TV. Matar conjurs the atmosphere of a fundamentalist dictatorship as seen from inside with breathtaking accuracy – this is a novel where the sense of authoritarian terror is palpable.

At the heart of this terror lies that old Hamlet saw about whether it is nobler in mind, etc. When faced with oppression, the novel asks, is it better to cling to your ideals and plunge yourself and your family into hopeless suffering, or should one simply capitulate before the superior authority of the state, bow our heads meekly and focus on staying alive, even if this means betraying those we care for? Where does a man’s obligation to his country and his people end and his duty to himself and his family begin?

There are many other issues here – questions of identity and integrity, issues of nationalism and exile, the pathology of betrayal, the evolution from boyhood into manhood (and yes, gender issues get a serious look-in as well). More than that, there is a great deal of outrage, a great deal of anger against and condemnation of authoritarian and patriarchal systems, all mixed with the sadness of one who has been forced to flee his native land [2].

Yet authenticity of emotion alone does not make a good novel, and for all its topicality In the Country of Men is a lackluster work. The trouble, I think, is that the story overall seems predictable, even cliched, and Matar’s focus on depicting the atmosphere of the time comes in the way of effective character development. Most of the characters in this book remain ciphers – convenient pawns in the chess game of political meaning that Matar is laying out. We never get, for instance, an authentic sense of what Slooma’s father is really like, what drives him, what holds him back. And most of the other characters share this sense of ersatzness – they are archetypes assembled to be part of a picturesque cast – not real people. And Slooma himself is a little problematic – he seems a little too naive, a little too clueless. Okay, so he’s nine years old, but even nine year olds have a kind of intuitive understanding of the world (specially a world they can describe with such telling accuracy), which Slooma entirely lacks.

A second problem with the book is that Matar never seems entirely clear about where he’s going. In the Country of Men reads less like a coherent novel and more like a set of excellent book ideas collapsed into one. There are the themes around the oppression of women, there are a whole set of episodes about the evolving set of relationships between Slooma’s friends, but all these come and go disjointedly between the book’s main action. It almost feels as though Matar is trying to write a private, intimate book about his childhood, only to have it repeatedly interrupted by the gravity of his political message.

Don’t get me wrong – this is not a bad book. There are some exquisite scenes here (one particularly gripping public execution comes to mind), but there is also a great deal that is merely average. This is not a spectacular novel, though it is certainly a pleasant one.

Perhaps Matar himself senses this quality of the book, which is why he tries to liven things up in the last 25 pages of the novel. While the first 220 pages of the book describe a few critical weeks in Slooma’s life in patient detail, the last 25 pages pack in the rest of his life from the time when he was nine to the present. It’s as though Matar, having grown impatient with this whole writing thing, had decided to cram an entire second novel into the last few chapters of his first one. Despite the presence of some lovely passages of prose, these pages are the worst part of the book. The action moves so fast that we are unable to feel any empathy for the narrator, unable to experience any real emotion at all. Strange coincidences occur with gratuitious regularity, life changing events are put paid to in paragraphs. It’s like watching Slooma’s life go by in a clumsy fast forward.

Overall then, In the Country of Men is a good but fairly stolid work – one that may well be an important book in so far as it represents one man’s outraged voice speaking out against political oppression – but that is far from being an important novel.

Notes

[1] Personally, I thought the most impressive take on the theme this year was Uwem Akpan’s story My Parent’s Bedroom in the New Yorker
[2] Matar’s own father disappeared into the prisons of the Libyan secret police in 1995 (see a Guardian article about him here) and the novel clearly draws on his own experiences of a childhood in Libya.

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