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Now in Session: The BPP Book Club

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Listener Christine Livernash gives her take on the book.

All right, so it's time to talk. If you've read our inaugural BPP Book Club selection, Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men, here's your chance to let us know what you think. We'll be looking for your comments, questions, complaints and suggestions all day long, and we're planning to use your input when we talk to the author later this week.

Haven't finished the book yet? Don't let that stop you. This is not a test.

Hey, we're official! The BPP Book Club now has its own e-mail address.

Comments

 

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I'll start! My biggest struggle with this book is that I find Suleiman unlikable. He does such terrible things. I'm sure that's what is also really good about this book--would Karim's story be half as interesting?

Sent by Tricia, NPR | 8:56 AM | 4-1-2008

I actually like books where the lead character is flawed. Then I want to know why the character is flawed. In this case is this child just a bad seed or has he learned to be selfish and destructive by watching those around him?

Sent by Alison Stewart-NPR | 11:25 AM | 4-1-2008

Hi BPP. Here are my questions for the author:

While reading this book, I found myself often exclaiming, "Oh no, why did he do that?", due to Suleiman's actions.
Why is Suleiman so mean and disloyal to the people he really cares about except for his mom? It seems out of character that someone who wants to be his mother's savior always seems to betray everyone else. Is it that he just wanted the attention as a young boy or is it something else?

Did Suleiman grow up to be a bartender or a real pharmacist? I got confused when he mentioned that he wore a white coat when he was at work.

Why was Bahloul scared of a 9 year old boy?

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. As Allison mentioned, It also made me look up places online to get a feel and a history of what I was reading. Thanks for allowing me to ask my questions.

Sent by Tyeschea | 11:59 AM | 4-1-2008

For me, Suleiman's weakness and corruption are a perfect mirror for the weakness and corruption of the society around him. He's living in a moral vacuum, created by the repressive state and his completely dysfunctional family. And so he adapts to match his surroundings.

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 12:06 PM | 4-1-2008

Glad to join the BPP book club. I have very mixed feelings about the book. As some of the other readers, I had trouble getting into the story. Tricia, I also don't find Suleiman likable. I like it when a character gets to my heart and this guy really didn't. I also found it hard to believe that a nine-year old would come up with some of the observations. What I did love about the book - after thinking about it for days - are the many levels that Matar offers. It is like a huge painting that you can look at for hours and again and again find something new. I like how he portrays different levels of betrayal - for me that is the running theme. And then the little things such as the family home being in Mulberry Street. There are, however, no Mulberry trees left but the one in Rashid's (!) garden. Later, how Faraj cannot swallow the mulberries that Suleiman offers him. Did someone else find that the atmosphere of the book - despite the poetic language - remains kind of sterile? What I mean is the it feels like the family house could be in any totalitarian country and that I wouldn't be able to identify Libya - not that I have ever been there.

Sent by Sandra | 12:18 PM | 4-1-2008

gosh, so many people would lose their jobs if we weren't all flawed...especially authors and shrinks...i think he grew up struggling to be loved and needed as he was being raised by preoccupied parents; one into politics and away alot and the other dealing with melancholia...and last but not least, he was submerged in an oppressive, dangerous environment with only one seemingly positive relationship...the young guy who didn't want to pursue college...and, you could even see how he sought attention from the spy guy outside in the car..anyway, my question is...do you think his parents sent him to egypt thinking they were saving him or to feel less pressure to care for him since they each seemed to be in their own detached world.

Sent by jayn | 12:26 PM | 4-1-2008

Flawed is what we are, especially as children. I was more intrigued by his very beautiful memories of his mother despite her many clear weaknesses. Was I the only reader who did not get the affair with alcohol until the end? "Her medicine" had me thinking along deeply sympathetic lines, and yet it was the universal coping mechanism. I also felt he absolutely captured the voice of Suleiman the child. I saw the word through his eyes very clearly.

Sent by Janet Hoover | 1:00 PM | 4-1-2008

I liked that the character was flawed. However, I feel that Suleiman never came to term with his flaws and realized how significant his betrayal and hurt effected others. He felt grief at each isolated incident but those feelings did not carry over as lessons learned. Also at the end I felt the attitude was too defeated. Usually when a book ends I want to continue knowing the character lives. With Suleiman however, I had given up on him just as he seemed to give up on his relationships with the past and Libya.

Sent by Janene | 1:31 PM | 4-1-2008

I think most every boy his age is flawed. I was. Vastly. He was living in a flawed family and a tragically flawed country. The other thing is this: he IS a boy. How high a standard do we have for 9-year-olds in bad situations.

All of that aside, I believe the author created a very believable character in Suleiman. Multi-faceted character. So he did his job.

Sent by David Hollis, Hamilton, NY | 2:07 PM | 4-1-2008

and one more thought...at the very end of the story, having been permitted the golden opportunity of hindsight, maturity and more civil surroundings, he comes to see how important traditional(marriage?) relationships are to sustaining a more meaningful life and that he may be unable to grasp the brass ring at this point...and he seems to see that clearly...it would be better if we all could feel our common tears more deeply than our hatred and anger...especially in that part of the world

Sent by jayn | 2:33 PM | 4-1-2008

I didn't mind Sulieman and his flaws that much. Frankly, characters that are have too little flaws tend towards the sappy. I appreciate his honesty in looking back at what happened. He sugar coats nothing, and he successfully communicates his confusion about the world around him, such as his mother's "medicine." He bought that one hook, line and sinker as a child, yet as a narrator, resists the temptation to look back with mature eyes until the very end of the novel.

I enjoyed this book (and appreciated its brevity!). I am curious as to how much of this novel is autobiographical.

Sent by Beth | 2:53 PM | 4-1-2008

If you have any questions please post them here so I can ask Mr. Matar tomorrow!

Sent by Alison Stewart, NPR | 3:22 PM | 4-1-2008

I really enjoyed getting a glimpse into life in Libya, a country which frankly I did not know that much about. It inspired me to do more research on Libya's history.
I really enjoyed the book because it felt so realistic. In a way, I feel there was a lack of a strong climax but I liked the narrative because of that. I never thought it would end with him being sent away. It highlighted his disconnection with his parents (when they were physically together) even more. I thought it was interesting that his strongest urges to return home came after his father was jailed and then deceased.
The moments of violent temperaments from Suleiman made me cringe and I had to question myself why I was so repulsed by this young boy acting in this manner, more so than by the adult violence. I think it may be because as a child I remember doing things you know are wrong and feeling very adult guilt afterward.

Sent by Lindsay | 3:26 PM | 4-1-2008

I have a few questions for Mr. Matar

1. What was the significance of the boys feelings of alienation from his parents when they are together?

2. Why did he decide to have Suleiman's father back down from his convictions and be eventually let alone rather than have a very climatic and emotional narrative in which his father has the same fate as Kareem's father?

As I mentioned in my former comment, I feel this decision made the novel more realistic by portraying true human nature and cemented my adoration of the work.

Sent by Lindsay | 3:55 PM | 4-1-2008

I don't know if I agree that Suleiman felt guilty. I am not even sure that as a grown-up he was not a jerk. The whole reflection on his horrible youth could be an excuse as to why he was forced to do things that are ethically questionable (narcing on his friends to the guy on the telephone, attempting to continue listing his dad's friends to the spy guy, not being kind to Kareem in his time of need, being brutal to the begger, trying to give dad's book to the spy guy then giving it to dad in the end).

Does he really feel sorry (as a grown-up) for his complete lack of ethics as a child, or was he just explaining how his environment forced him to be this way? I was very glad when Kareem got the girl in the end. THAT was poetic justice!! For all we know, Suleiman is still doing unethical things and blaming them on his Libyan childhood.

One note on the side, did you all notice in the end that the age difference between mother and son was only 15 years! One of my best friends, a young doctor, is 15 years younger than me. The older you get the smaller the age difference is. She let him climb into her bed on a regular basis when he was 9! I wonder about the mother/son correctness in their relationship. A drunken 24 year old telling a 9 year old he is her prince is very sick.

I too, wonder if the book is autobiographical, and basically letting us peek in on a long therapy session.

On a positive note: I loved the sentence saying even the ants were searching for shade, and also the concept of the immense sea separating the beds at night. Matar has a nice way with words.

Sent by Rebecca | 4:18 PM | 4-1-2008

I'll throw out another idea/question. What about the mother's abuse of alcohol and her subsequent emotional abuse of her son? I tend to want to find LESSONS in things and I kept trying to decide if the author was trying to make a larger point about women in Libyan society or just painting a picture of a specific woman, maybe based on his own mother or someone he knows. I don't really know what I'm asking, but I'd love to hear what people think about the mom, about her drinking, about her inability to get past this huge incident from her teen years, her chafing at her imprisonment. It also struck me early on in the book how young she is--she must be about 23 when this all happens to her.

And then one last thing--why is her relationship with her husband suddenly happy, fulfilled, and sexual when he comes home from being tortured and betraying his comrades?

Sent by Tricia, NPR | 4:31 PM | 4-1-2008

I was appalled by many of his actions, so I guess I 'connected with' the story, but it seems more like the scenes of a movie to me--beautiful set pieces with little or no life.

Sent by Kate | 5:17 PM | 4-1-2008

???...it would appear to be circumscribed and pre-ordained that in middle east cultures one marries and has many children...marrying so young would not be unusual but having had only one child would be...yes/no??? and therefore, is that why this particular family would appear "dysfunctional" even though i find that word to be out of place in such a regulated society...and are you married and would it not be strange for people in libya not to be married? are children really close emotionally to their parents in libya and if so does it tend to be toward a particular parent. in your opinion, what was it about suleiman's upbringing that helped to create such a disconnect or detachment from establishing and/or following a more traditional life style? thank you bpp and hisham for this interesting opportunity.

Sent by jayn | 6:07 PM | 4-1-2008

I was captivated by Suleiman's ability to transmit his feelings, especially when he hardly understood them, as when his mother inappropriately says she and he are 'two halves of the same whole'. To the boy, these words "felt like a gift I didn't want". To me, this scene attests to the yearning between mother and son, a yearning they are unable to satisfy, and this yearning stays with the man Suleiman who, at the end of the novel, asks: "Why does our country long for us so savagely?"
As to the part of him that is unlikable to so many of you, I think it is due to the fact that the boy Suleiman was raised in an atmosphere of secrets, deception and mistrust inside and outside the home. At home, ???books demand too much trust???, his mother is betrayed by her brother the ???poet??? and the boy???s heroine, Scheherazade, is despised by Mama for being a coward. Outside, of course, is the Guide and his Revolution.
When Suleiman the boy envisions himself as a grown man, a businessman like Baba, he says ???I will then be a man heavy with the world???. The boy is not heavy, rather he is utterly innocent of the world ??? thus his unfortunate decisions to trust the ???bad guys??? who give him easily distinguishable black-or-white choices. While the child was faced with corrupt choices, armed only with secrets and lies masquerading as truth, the man discovers the truth to be ???cunning, sly-natured??? only astonishing in how familiar, how known it has always been.???

Because it is well written, this book resonates at many levels, from mother and son to mother country and expatriate, from poetry to politics and from innocence to loss. I enjoyed reading it immensely.

Sent by Kymm | 7:41 PM | 4-1-2008

@Kymm, I have to say that's a really insightful post. Of course this boy's family is no refuge for him--his whole life is filled with secrets and impulses he barely understands. He's given so much responsibility for such a little boy. He is routinely lied to. But he's not spied upon by his family--they actually give him a lot of freedom within the physical confines of his home.

I'd like to ask Hisham Matar some basic questions about what happens to Suleiman's "victims"--what happens to Balul the beggar? (if I spell names wrong it's because I listened to the audio book and haven't seen these names before!) Does he drown? What happens to Adnan? Does he bleed to death? I know some of the other boys from Suleiman's group are mentioned at the end, but I don't remember hearing anything about Adnan.

Sent by Tricia, NPR | 7:55 PM | 4-1-2008

As to the sense of place in the book, I haven't been to Libya either, but I felt that the writer evoked a strong sense of place, especially when he talks about the strong sun and the heat. And the scene in Martyr's Square was vivid in its detail--I could really picture it. Also Lepcis Magna as a kind of bastion of beauty, order and high culture (read: Western culture).

But what's funny is that while I was still reading the book, I read that article that Sarah Goodyear posted about the guy who travels to Tripoli, and his description of Libya is now an inextricable part of the Libya I saw in my mind's eye as I read the book.

I also loved the tidbits about how the boys watched cowboy movies and the little nuggets about food (the cakes, the tea, the sesame sticks, the mulberries).

Sent by Tricia, NPR | 8:09 PM | 4-1-2008

Hey there. I just want to say how exciting it is to have so many people talking about a book that I first read just over a year ago and that has haunted me ever since.

For those of you who are wondering about how autobiographical the book is...I linked in an earlier post to an autobiographical essay that Matar wrote when the book was first released in England: http://tinyurl.com/28pnba.

It reveals that Matar's own life differed from Suleiman's in some crucial ways (he had a brother, his family was very wealthy, he did not leave Libya alone, etc.). But I think it is clear that the mood and the milieu he creates in the fictional world of Suleiman echo his own experience of alienation. Suleiman is also the same age as he was in 1979, the year in which the book is set.

I would be interested in hearing from Matar how much of himself he put into Suleiman, especially in the negative traits that have struck so many readers here...his selfishness and his willingness to betray those close to him. Does he recognize those as his own weaknesses? Or did he gave Suleiman those qualities simply to reflect larger truths about Libyan society?

I also am very interested in hearing how he feels about the softening relations between Libya and the US and Europe, especially since his own father has never been accounted for since he was kidnapped and made a political prisoner many years ago. It must be incredibly painful to have your personal history trampled on by the forces of international politics this way.

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 8:27 PM | 4-1-2008

I loved the book.
The mother's comments on her dreams being squashed by the forced marriage and birth of her son while at the same time praising the son's existence disturbed me.
Was the age difference raised at the end a reminder that the emotional abuse will last many more years?

Sent by HP | 9:47 PM | 4-1-2008

Most of what I might have said others have mentioned. As I mentioned in an ealier post, Suleiman and Hisham and I were all born within a few months of each other. This added a personal dimension for me -- and made me a bit uneasy as well. As I read, I kept comparing my experiences at that age. Where was I living? What did I watch on TV? How did I relate to my friends? What frightened me?

To add a couple of questions:

Why was it important to Matar to introduce characters who were not Libyan? Moosa was such a likeable character, and both his Moosa's father and Signor Calzoni are in prominent scenes.

I also wonder what we are to take away from Suleiman's great relief that Sharief is keeping the mother's drinking a secret when that relief is expressed as a willingness to turn over a book that would incriminate the father.

This certainly makes me anxious to hear the interview.

Sent by Seth in Kansas | 10:08 PM | 4-1-2008

I think many of the contributors to this blog have forgotten what it was like to be nine years old. I'm amazed that they don't remember doing implusive things as a child and so are kept from empathizing with Suleiman when he throws the rock at Adnan and does other seemingly thoughtless things. His brain and arm were too fast for reason to stay his movement. He gorged himself with mulberries and he stayed out in the sun too long. Is this just childhood and the child's inability to control his urges? How about Mom and the "medicine"? There's another resonance; Mom takes her "medicine" and he husband gets his "medicine" from the jailers.

Suleiman had many problems to deal with; an alcoholic mother and a distant and emotionally detached father. He certainly was emotionally abused. Did his mother abuse him? Did Moosa?

Thank you for this opportunity to read this book and then do some thinking about it. I'm looking forward to your next selection.

Sent by Marge | 10:10 PM | 4-1-2008

This is one of the most powerfully moving novels I've read in years. Suleiman's struggle to understand his place within a terrifying and unstable world is both heartbreaking and exasperating. It's a lesson for adults about how children perceive and absorb our world and can be victimized or brutalized by it. I felt compassion for just about all of the major characters, regardless of their flaws. Each was reacting to his or her own experience, perhaps not in the ideal way we would hope for ourselves, but in ways that are familiar and real. I would be interested in hearing how much of the author's personal experience is part of the story in the novel.

Sent by Kate Kenealy | 11:06 PM | 4-1-2008

I thought this book was good- very much in the same vein as Dave Egger's What is the What and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. If you enjoyed this book, you should definitely check these two out.

While all three books feature stories told through the eyes of children growing up in unbelievably harrowing environments, I think that what separates In The Country of Men is that there is a much greater focus on the relationship between Suleiman and his parents. A lot of posts have been uncomfortable with Sulieman in the way he treated other people. I think those actions are how he deals with the anger of discovering that his parents were not the gods we all envision our parents to be when we are children. There is so much happening around him and he has no guide through any of it, to me his lashing out is what gives the character his humanity- yes, it's ugly but it's real.

Sent by jay | 11:38 PM | 4-1-2008

@Seth in Kansas,

I too thought about those afternoon hours in front of the TV, mine and Suleiman's both. I was watching the Brady Bunch and he was watching executions. And yet the way Matar describes Suleiman's experience of sitting there watching the screen is eerily familiar to me from my own childhood.

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 7:34 AM | 4-2-2008

I wonder about the touching passages when Suleiman and his father come together after he is released from detention. Was it cathartic for Mr. Matar to be reunited with this fictional father?

I was moved by this poetic and powerful story.

Diane Pizzo

Sent by Diane Pizzo | 8:25 AM | 4-2-2008

I was glad I read this book, I suppose, but there is nothing in particular I need to discuss with other readers or the author. Right now I'm looking forward to not thinking about it any more. Is there any particular reason "worthwhile" books have to be such downers? I'm not suggesting My Pet Goat or The Hobbit as the next book choice, but perhaps maybe something a little less soul crushing? I get enough about repressive governments and family disfunction in the news. I look for something if not better than real life then at least different for my reading choices.

Sent by Dave Wiley | 10:05 AM | 4-2-2008

I enjoyed the book, was engaged by Suleiman, several of the character sketches and the descriptions right from the beginning, however, I felt the story began to lose steam as Suleiman moves to Egypt. Perhaps Volume II would explore his further maturing, contrast with a different society, come to understand more about women?

Sent by Carol G. Durst | 12:32 PM | 4-2-2008

@Dave Wiley,

I promise, we're going to mix things up here on the BPP Book Club. We certainly don't want your soul crushed.

Sent by Sarah Goodyear | 2:37 PM | 4-2-2008

@ I promise, we're going to mix things up here on the BPP Book Club.

Thanks, Sarah! I'm looking forward to seeing what the next selection is. I'll squeeze in a Pratchett before then to get my happiness quotient back up.

Sent by Dave Wiley | 4:08 PM | 4-2-2008

@marge: After much thought on ethics and morals and talk with colleagues, I have decided to forgive Suleiman his childhood wrong-doings. A friend said that he believes each being has a core of moral fortitude that may be awakened by a mentor if not their parents. And perhaps this mentor was the foster-father, the judge. Also, the friend mentioned that many children grow up to say they will never repeat the mistakes of their parents, which would be appropriate in this case. So, at least in my opinion, it is possible that Suleiman survived the ordeal of totalitarianism and became an upright citizen.

One point we have not taken on is his being an ex-pat. As I am one myself, I could very much connect with his longing to return to his "home" country yet lack of solidarity with it. That's a tough nut to crack.

Sent by Rebecca | 5:20 PM | 4-2-2008

i'm hoping you feel this endeavor has been successful and will continue to direct and encourage the reading of good books...and i think the finale should continue to be a discussion with the author...as it will bring added meaning to having read a fine book.

Sent by jayn | 6:11 PM | 4-2-2008

people might find the book a little hard to read because suleiman is fiercely,if not brutally honest about his nature. on the other hand, i do not think it is too far fetched to say that most of us spend our lives trying to please our parents in one way or another, i am not sure if you can honestly call your life your own since it is inveitably influenced by the people closest to you. I mean, the fact that Suleiman became a pharmacist proves how he could not detach himself from his mother's haunting habits, her "medicine" made him settle for a profession he never even cared for.

side note: did anyone else have trouble figuring out what time the online discussion was supposed to begin or what link to use to get there?

Sent by michelle | 9:06 AM | 4-3-2008

Loved the book. I thought Suleiman was both an interesting and infuriating character. He is so young and vulnerable that you want to protect him but then he repeatedly tests your patience. I kept hoping that he would at some later point redeem himself but that never happens.
I was particularly unsatisfied with his character after he moves to Egypt. He is grown into a man and yet he seems so indifferent to the fate of his country and its people. Why would a boy who is so self-aware, sensitive, and brutally honest grow into a such shallow man? Specially given his past. Even if he's an anti-hero, it's a bitter pill to swallow.

Sent by Saima | 11:28 AM | 4-3-2008

After hearing the author interview, I'm struck by how completely he's given over to the idea that the story writes itself.

My perspective on making art in whatever form, or at least the perspective taught to me, is that the creator is faced with an infinite number of choices, and it's in the discerning what choices you have -- and then actively making them -- that shapes the creation. That point of view allows for after-the-fact dialogue and criticism and the kinds of questions that were raised by the "club members."

Hisham writes from a whole other place and is so deeply in touch with his characters that they simply did what they did. To give up control in that way seems very brave to me.

Sent by Seth in Kansas | 9:04 AM | 4-5-2008

4.5.08
Knowing the blog has ended for Matar's book, I'll ask two questions anyway. (I finished In the Country early, but didn't understand WHEN to blog, following earlier NPR comments to avoid posting too soon.)
1. WHY SEND SULEIMAN to EGYPT after Baba had denounced his activities (only to pick them up 15 yrs later)? Why was the boy sent away?
2. WHY DIDN'T the JUDGE pay for the Mother's trip to Cairo instead of having her wait all those years to visit Suleiman?

Sent by carol | 1:12 PM | 4-5-2008

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