Anatomy of a Disappearance: A Novel by Hisham Matar

Hisham Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance,  easily matches the promise of his first, In The Country of Men, [reviewed here] and is lovelier in image and language, though less obviously of Libya, the country of his origins.  In both the memories which compromise the story are of  a young boy.  In both the boys have exceptionally strong relationships to their mothers, both mothers are often sick — with intimations of depression, while their fathers are often away.  In both, their lives are shaped, in different degrees by political terror.

In the Country of Men, the young boy, Suleiman,  is in the country — Libya– of the terror.  His father disappears.  He and his mother wait and pray for his return; she tries to make deals with the security man across the street; she tells him to destroy all his father’s books.  The normalcy of childhood is metamorphosed into something most of us can not imagine.  Finally, the father is returned:

His eyes were closed, full of air or water or blood, like split rotten tomatoes, and his lower lip was as fat and purple as a baby eggplant.”  

Suleiman is sent to Cairo to be out of  danger and to finish his education; the story has come to an end.

In Anatomy of a Disappearance, Nuri, the narrator, is a young man in his twenties at the time of the story’s telling.   Though born in Paris of an English mother and Arabic — probably Libyan, though never said–father, he has returned to Cairo, where he had spent his younger life, and to the love of the family servants.  Most of the narrative, and by far the most powerful, is of his adolescent years — from age 10, the death of his mother, to 22 when he finishes University.  Though the father disappears when Nuri is 14, there is none of the close violence of the earlier book.  Perhaps some moments of tension as we wonder whether Nuri, or his father’s new wife, Mona, might be abducted by the same mysterious forces but these are minor in the lush exploration of memory, loss, desire and growth,  maturing away from the early love and into a knowledge of his father he might otherwise never have had.

Without knowing Matar’s origins and background one would read Anatomy, unlike In the Country,  as simply a fine European novel,  playing out in Geneva, upper middle class Cairo and London, but without any sense of reading an “Arabic” novel.  Reference to the father’s background, and earlier life are confined to mention of “our country,” or that he was the “most trusted adviser to our king.”  Cairo and Alexandria figure strongly in the story but this has been true of  fine British novels and don’t necessarily “mark” them as Arabic.  Although I came across Matar in a search for Libyan writers, he is not an “Arabic” writer in the pure sense of that notion.  We are not reading a translation.  He writes in English. He was born in New York City and lived in Libya with his parents from age 3 to 9, when the family fled to Cairo from Gaddafi’s violent persecutions.  His education has been almost entirely in English. He is one of a new breed of internationalist writers — as Ahdaf Soueif [and here, here] — comfortable in two or more countries, life lived and families still living in different cultures from which to draw upon; emotional, linguistic, imagistic ties to many parts.   Perhaps he could be called Anglo-Libyan, or Anglo-Arabic, or the reverse.  In any case he is a fine writer,  about whose allegiances there should be no quarrel: to men and women, to children, in their varieties.

The disappearance of the father is the event around which the telling revolves, but the novel is not an investigatory piece, or a mystery in the usual sense.  It is less an anatomy of the disappearance, than of the life and lives interrupted by it.  In the end it is the story of the young man discovering home, and himself, not in the country his father and mother fled but in Egypt, where they put their deepest roots, and with the Cairene maid/mother who brought him up.

Matar evokes nostalgia and memory with a fine sense of description and detail — the glow of a bathing suit strap across the arched ripples of a backbone, the imprint of a foot in the creamy instep of a shoe, the misted outline of a woman’s body behind a shower curtain.  The first awakening of sexual desire in the 13 year old Nuri, and jealousy of his father, is so palpable we are at times uncomfortable.  A sort of Death in Venice in reverse as a young man is obsessed with an older woman, who leads him on, disturbs us, both by the separation of their ages and the sense of kind of incest  setting in.  Our caution alarms ring in our throats..

In both books we are treated to such evocative and unexpected images we have to pause and let them seep inside.  We want to return to them, to gaze as on jewels against the ordinary dross of language.

In The Country of Men we have such marvelous images as

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,


in the faint glow I saw him on top of her, moving back and forth the same short sad distance, like one of those old ladies mourning the dead.

Anatomy opens with

“There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.”

Later, describing the hotel in Alexandria where Nuri and his father meet Mona, he says

You could hear the waves lapping lazily against the shore like a snoring guard dog

After extracting a speck of brown thorn “from the soft pink flesh” of her toe, in an act of self-assurance he has never again felt, Nuri looks at her:

I watched her without restraint. I wanted to wear her, as you would a piece of fold into her ribs, be a stone in her mouth…

These are both marvelous books, connected in their conception and execution but siblings who are completely their own persons.  Don’t waste a minute in getting acquainted with their author. Anatomy may be a more compelling entry point for many, with its familiar themes of adolescent love, and the mystery of the man, whose disappearance is never solved even as hidden years of his life are discovered and  Nuri finds himself becoming more and more like the man he had been searching for.


Big Sur in Springtime

Big Sur in Springtime

Big Sur in Springtime

On Easter Sunday we hiked a few fingers of the great hand of God, the Santa Lucia mountains and the coast line of Big Sur. The Big Sur river itself, just 4 days before, had churned its muddy way over the bridge on Highway One, and half-buried several cars in a once green meadow. The raging fires of last summer had left lots of open earth. The later winter rains had saturated it and a nondescript shower on Tuesday had been the more than the muchness needed for one section up river, loosed it and down it came. By Saturday the earth movers and shovel handlers had been out and the road was open, the river clear and cold. No one had been injured.

The climb up to Buzzards’ Roost from the south end of the bridge is over an hour of not quite continuous switchbacks almost entirely through cool coastal redwood forests. Maidenhair and five-fingered fern, miners’ lettuce, the ubiquitous redwood sorrel with its three clover like heart-shaped leaves, some sprouting lovely white flowers spread wide along the trail. Big leaf maple, sycamore and alder try to out compete the redwoods, here and there succeeding. A solitary brown creeper makes its way steadily up a redwood trunk looking for lunch. Stellar jays scream to each other, yak at us. The egg-yolk yellow of a warbler captures our attention for a long as she’ll stay still — not long at all.

Coastal Redwood, Big Sur

Coastal Redwood, Big Sur

At the top of the climb, the shelter of the trees below, the final yards of the trail lined with blackberry brambles and manzanita, we stand in chaparral, sage and beautiful yellow deerweed, waist high, and see the broad expanse of the Pacific, the fog-belt cinched four miles off-shore. The wind is still cool though the heat is noticible. Beneath our feet is a tumble of magma, hard-cooked layers of sandstone that have been through the trenches of hell before being pushed to these heights. Distinct bands of yellows and ochres from river run-off millions of years ago are clearly visible — all in God’s own unmistakable signature.

Iraq for Sale

I took advantage of a new Tivo feature in which you can download films from the film catalog directly to your own Tivo. If it’s a rental you can keep it until you watch it; once you start watching you have 24 hours to finish –or watch it continuously if you want– then it self destructs.

I downloaded Roger Greenwald’s Iraq for Sale. Great film? Nope. Enough to make your blood boil? Absolutely.

Talking head after talking head talking about the malfeasance of Halliburton, KBR, CACI, Titan.

CACI, one the providers of interrorgators at Abu Ghraib, of course had no representatives. Greenwald had plenty to remind us of the sickening events and that junior soldiers have been courts martialed and are serving time. The civilian guards, if accused, were fired and sent home, where they could get a job with another contractor.

From Halliburton and KBR there were plenty — not from the companies but from the workers who went to drive trucks, build showers, serve meals. Many of them talk about their dual motivation: to make money for their families, and to help rebuild Iraq. And then they began to see: empty trucks run up and down the road in order to bill the DOD; multi-million dollar trucks blown up because extra tires weren’t available; shower water not chlorinated and contaminated with typhus, giardia, all the bad stuff. All these good-old-boys speak in the film about the greed of the corporations, the short cuts taken, the lack of training.

As one said: How are you going to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people if what they see us doing is cheating each other? What kind of recommendation is that?

The US Congress, despite Patrick Leahy’s and others efforts, has not done a damn thing about the contracting. Greenwald kindly posts the votes, and other research backing up the claims of the movie.

If you want something to do, with the new Democratic majorities, here are some place to help you out.