The Return by Hisham Matar – exquisite pain of a fatherless son

The Libyan writer reckons the awful cost to his family of Gaddafi’s tyranny with gentle dignity

In the winter of 2010, the Libyan novelist Hisham Matar went with his wife Diana and his brother Ziad to the House of Lords, where they sat in the gallery while Lord Lester, the human rights advocate, asked Her Majesty’s government whether it would seek information from the government of Libya as to the whereabouts of Matar’s father, Jaballa, who had then been missing for two decades.

Hearing his father’s name spoken in “my adopted country’s highest chamber” had a “vertiginous effect” on Matar, a feeling that recurred every time it was repeated, and for a while he felt that all he wanted to do was to get up and get out. But whatever its other effects, this “dizzying hollowness” did not render him blind, and as he listened to the Lords antiseptically carry out their business – “Our embassy in Tripoli has raised this with the Libyans and asked them to investigate further,” responded Baroness Kinnock, then a minister of state in the Foreign Office – he couldn’t help but notice that Peter Mandelson, a man known to have had a fairly close friendship with Colonel Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, was staring at him. “His expression was theatrically hard and seemed deliberately without emotion,” writes Matar. It was a look that seemed to him to sum up the cynicism with which some members of the Blair government were then conducting relations with the Libyan dictatorship.

By the time the reader reaches this episode in Matar’s new memoir, The Return, he is already heartsick; the behaviour of Tony Blair and his ministers in the matter of Libya – some days later, David Miliband, the then foreign secretary, suggested to Matar that the “noise” he was making over the fate of his father was distinctly unhelpful – is as nothing to that of Gaddafi’s monstrous regime, to whose crimes he has already devoted almost 200 pages. Somehow, though, this encounter and others like it reach another part of you, horror and rage shading suddenly into shame.

Cynicism: it seems a mild word for behaviour so unconscionable. In context, however, it has a quiet power. This has to do, I think, with clarity. For all that he has been through personally, Matar is ever clear-eyed. If, as he writes, the calamity that has followed the fall of Gaddafi is more true to the nature of his dictatorship than to the ideals of the 2011 revolution – “The masses rule,” went one of the regime’s brutish slogans. “Representative politics is not democracy” – then the role of our present government in that great misfortune can similarly be traced back to Blair’s infamous desert kiss in 2004. For isn’t the child always the father of the man?

But The Return isn’t really about politics. It’s not even about the last gasp of Gaddafi’s rule, for all that the reader must contend in its pages with the sight of Saif al-Islam’s puerile swagger: with his arrival at a Knightsbridge hotel (the go-between for this meeting, incidentally, was the financier, Nathaniel Rothschild, another of Peter’s friends) surrounded by a group of men in T-shirts who looked “more like a hip-hop band than a security outfit”; with his stupid emoticons and his vile cat-and-mouse attitude to Matar. Rather, it is a book about family and loss and love.

Its structure is complex, moving almost rhythmically backwards and forwards in time, a tide that comes in and out, in and out. Matar, like all of us, measures his life in significant moments. But where we have births, marriages and deaths after mostly long lives, his years have been marked by, among other things, an exile (his family left Libya in 1979, when he was eight); a kidnapping (his father, a dissident with a “small army” under his control in Chad, was taken by the Libyan regime from Cairo to Tripoli in 1990); and a massacre (in 1996 some 1,270 prisoners were killed in Abu Salim prison in Tripoli; it seems likely that Jaballa Matar was one of them).

And then there is his return to Libya in March 2012, his mother and his wife by his side, a journey that bookends his story as he tells it here. This, in turn, is punctuated by yet more dates. In Benghazi he meets a man who phoned him in 2009, insisting he had seen Jaballa Matar alive in 2002, in a prison known as the Mouth of Hell. But shown a photograph of his father, the man changes his story; he cannot be sure, after all – it was another prisoner who “saw” Jaballa Matar. How, he wonders, can “the endless firmament of our interiority – the thoughts and questions and yearnings and hopes and hunger and desire and the thousand and one contradictions that inhabit us at any given moment – ever have an ending that could be marked by a date on a calendar?” For him, this question has been complicated by not knowing when, exactly, his father ceased to exist. Many of us think of those we have loved and lost as a presence. But while this feeling usually diminishes over time, for him it only grew, toppling the rest of life to the point where only the quest to find answers mattered.

As reckonings-up go, this is a sombre ledger; I never stopped wishing that this book had not needed to be written, that the experiences that gave birth to it had not happened. But Matar has turned it into something exquisite, too. Shafts of light will come in, and sometimes they are dazzling. A son massages his beloved father’s feet. A mother whispers a line from a smuggled letter. A boy makes a new friend in an English boarding school. A man embraces an uncle, feeling the bones of his “prison body”. A family, big and fond, is reunited over nuts, pastries and sweet tea.

Matar has a reserve that only makes his way with intimacy all the more moving. Critics like to call books unflinching but the point about this one is that its author flinches all the time; it’s in his turning away that we feel his unfathomable sorrow, not in those moments when he describes, as he sometimes must, all the unspeakable ways in which the regime liked to torture its prisoners; the great pile of bloodied watches collected by the guards after the Abu Salim massacre.

Matar writes of the paralysing anger he felt as a younger man. But his book is bounded by a magnificent gentleness, a softness and care the reader experiences as a blessing. Where did it come from, this humanity, this wisdom? I think it comes from his father – not only in reality but in the idealised version of him that has been a natural corollary of his savage loss.

Thinking of the massacre at Abu Salim, Matar imagines his father reassuring the other men. This is how he manages the pictures in his mind. “Boys,” he would have told them. “Stand straight.” And then, those lines from the Qur’an: “With hardship comes ease. With hardship comes ease.” As I read, this was how I came to think of his son, too. Straight-backed; dignified; worn down, and yet so generously and miraculously easy on the page.

The Return is published by Viking (£14.99). Click here to buy it for £11.99


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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