Novelist's Own Exile Echoes in 'Country of Men'

Hisham Matar fled Libya in the 1970s as a 9-year-old boy. This week, he releases his debut novel, In the Country of Men, a story told through the eyes of a Libyan boy. Like Matar, the boy's father is a political dissident hunted down by the Libyan government.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

This week, Libyan exile Hisham Matar comes out with his first novel. The book, called "In the Country of Men," takes us to the Libyan capital, Tripoli. There we witness Muammar al-Kadafi's political terror through the eyes of a child. The book is not strictly autobiographical, but there are parallels between Matar's life and his narrator.

Matar's father has not been heard from since 1999, two years after being imprisoned for opposing Kadafi's government, and Matar fled Libya when he was nine years old. Mr. Matar joins us now from London. Thank you for being with us.

Mr. HISHAM MATAR (Author, "In the Country of Men"): Pleasure.

ELLIOTT: First of all, tell us a little bit about Suleiman, the narrator of this book.

Mr. MATAR: He's a nine-year-old boy living in Tripoli. He's an only child. And he spends most of his time with his mother. His father is absent, usually under the excuse of going on a business trip, but slowly Suleiman discovers that his father is also involved in the underground resistance. And he - it's in many ways a coming of age story, and it's his coming to learn of some of the facts of life through this experience in that one summer in 1979.

ELLIOTT: Now, Suleiman's father, Baba, is working against the government. What is he trying to do?

Mr. MATAR: Well, I - as an author I don't know what he's trying to do. I just, I mean, I know that he is involved, trying in some way to undermine the government or to highlight some of their crimes. But as an author it's really quite an interesting process, because you're working through - it's a bit like dancing with a stranger in the dark. You slowly learn about your characters. So I didn't approach this book knowing these people.

ELLIOTT: Now, that said, you as the child had a father who was fighting the Libyan government.

Mr. MATAR: Yes. The circumstances were very different. My father engaged in political activity when we were outside of Libya and when I was older.

ELLIOTT: You were living in exile in Cairo.

Mr. MATAR: We were living in exile in Cairo, yes. And so on a metaphoric level there are some autobiographical parallels, but they're ideas rather than literal events, literal actions and circumstances. The metaphoric parallels are to do with what it means to experience exile, to experience dictatorship, to long for one's past and not be able to return to it, not only the events and the people but also the places, the geographic location. These things I do share with my protagonist but that's pretty much where it stops. Everything else - his character, his relationship to his parents, his parents, his milieu and environment - very different from mine.

ELLIOTT: When did your family first leave Libya?

Mr. MATAR: We left at the same time that my protagonist left, in 1979. And for me this was a facility, it allowed me to imagine that time. But we left. we went to Kenya as a family and then eventually we settled in Egypt.

ELLIOTT: Now, even though you settled in Egypt, your father was still not safe.

Mr. MATAR: No, he wasn't. Ten years later, my father was abducted from his home and he remains a political prisoner since 1999 in Libya, untried, and we don't know where he is. We don't know whether he is alive or dead.

ELLIOTT: Do you ever wish that your father was not in politics, did not engage in politics? Did you ever try to talk him out of it?

Mr. MATAR: Absolutely. He and I used to have long-lasting arguments about this issue. Absolutely, because like most men who have lived and grown up in exile, as I have, you know, I have learned to live without my country, but I haven't learned to live without my father, and I remain unable to learn that.

ELLIOTT: Now, your book paint Suleiman as a prisoner in his own home, somewhat confused by the politics around him. There are times where he is seeing prisoners being interrogated and tortured on television. The family's phone line is wiretapped. He witnesses his best friend's father being whisked away. How was it for him in his own home, growing up in that environment?

Mr. MATAR: Well, everything I know about Suleiman is in the book, but it became clear to me through the writing that the house itself - this capsule that enclosed these characters, particularly Suleiman and his mother, because they spend most of their time alone in the house, was almost like another character in the book. And it heightened the sense of bewilderment that Suleiman sometimes feels.

ELLIOTT: Now, when his father, Baba, is away on business, his mother begins to drink. And it ends up fostering this very interesting relationship between the two. They have a very intimate, almost smothering relationship.

Mr. MATAR: Yes. This was really a discovery after about three years of working on the book. I wrote the book three times from scratch; this is excluding all the various revisions. And the first two rewrites, as it were, didn't work for me and I felt there was something wrong with them, something - some deep crack in the narrative, until I resolved the relationship between the mother and the son. It's almost an obsessive relationship. At times it isn't really clear who's taking care of whom.

ELLIOTT: Would you read for us from your book?

Mr. MATAR: I'd be delighted to.

The window in her bedroom was wide open, the glue tree outside it silent, its green shy in the early light. She hadn't fallen asleep until the sky was grey with dawn, and even then I was so rattled I couldn't leave her side, wondering if, like one of those hand puppets that play dead, she would bounce up again, light another cigarette and continue begging me as she had been doing only minutes before - not to tell, not to tell. Baba never found out about mama's illness. She only fell ill when he was away on business. It was as if when the world was empty of him, she and I remained as stupid reminders, empty pages that had to be filled with the memory of how they had come to be married. I sat watching her beautiful face, her chest rise and fall with breathe, unable to leave her side, hearing the things she had just told me swim and repeat in my head. Eventually I left her and went to bed.

ELLIOTT: Hisham Matar reading from his book "In the Country of Men." He's nine years old when his parents send him away, send him to Cairo, because they think he can have a better life there.

Mr. MATAR: Yes.

ELLIOTT: Now years later he learns that his father dies of a heart attack. His mother is ill again, and his best friend writes him and says, you know, we need to hear from you. Yet he doesn't call. You get the sense that at some point it would have been okay for him to return to Libya. He would have been allowed to by the authorities, but he never does. Why not?

Mr. MATAR: I think, you know, many exiles, whenever they are reminded that life continued without them, that things continue to happen - people marry, people die, people are born, life continues, they feel slightly betrayed, as if things should have stopped, halted at the outrage of their departure. It's very irrational, but I have certainly heard this account from many people, to know that it's, at least in some cases, true. And I think in Suleiman's case it's true. He is - he, you know, is unable to rejoin that past and is unable to let it go. And he's suspended between these two very difficult choices.

ELLIOTT: You wrote in The Independent last September that - I'm going to quote you now - living without one's country is a kind of daily death, that exile is in essence an endless mourning. Does part of you wish you had remained in Libya?

Mr. MATAR: Part of me wishes that things didn't progress in the way that they had and therefore would have allowed me and my family to remain in Libya. Of course, absolutely. I deeply adore my country and continue to. You know, my relationship with it is very complex but it's certainly a relationship that involves a great deal of love. Going back to Libya was one of the things I was doing in writing the book and trying to return - and also trying to wean myself of it, trying to cure myself of it. Of course I utterly failed. It remains an obsession, you know.

ELLIOTT: Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MATAR: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Hisham Matar, who now lives in London, is the author of "In the Country of Men." The book has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

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In the Country of Men
In the Country of Men

by Hisham Matar

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