The oppressor

In the Country of Men
by Hisham Matar
Viking ₤12.99, 245 pages

Libya was once a pariah state, but its ruler, Colonel Gadaffi, has orchestrated a dramatic rehabilitation of his country by formally taking responsibility for the bombing of a trans-Atlantic plane over the Scottish town of Lockerbie and renouncing weapons of mass destruction soon after. The crippling UN sanctions on the country were lifted, and Tripoli has since been visited by numerous western leaders, including Tony Blair in March 2004.

This is the backdrop against which the Libyan writer Hisham Matar has set his debut novel, In the Country of Men, which describes the worst cruelties of Gadaffi’s crackdown on political insurgents - including torture and televised executions. A poignant tale of personal and collective betrayal, it is also a timely reminder of the brutal methods that Gadaffi employed to become the Arab world’s longest-serving leader.

The plot revolves around the relationship between the nine-year-old narrator, Suleiman, and his mother, a miserable housewife. It begins in Tripoli in 1979, when thousands of Libyan political dissenters were allegedly imprisoned, tortured and executed, and Suleiman is bewildered by the regular disappearances of his distant, enigmatic father, who is caught up in an underground network of political liberals.

As the boy struggles to cope with his mother’s sporadic “illness”, which the adult reader interprets as alcoholism (deeply shameful in an Islamic state) and make sense of his father’s absences, he is drawn into a tangled series of betrayals, both personal and political.

A 35-year-old whose family was forced to flee Tripoli for Cairo in 1979 due to his diplomat father’s politics, Matar seems to have included some semi-autobiographical detail in the novel, although the main events are entirely fictional. A growing atmosphere of suppressed hysteria underlies the sparse prose, and he is able to conjure up some alluring local colour, such as the aroma of “parsley, lemon and cardamom” in the household kitchen or the somewhat alarming knife-throwing game, My Land, Your Land, he plays with his best friend, Kareem.

In the Country of Men has been labelled “the Libyan Kite Runner” in the book trade, and there are numerous parallels between it and Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 novel about boyhood betrayal in 1970s Afghanistan, though fans of The Kite Runner may find Matar’s characterisation less compelling than Hosseini’s tragically misguided Amir and his loyal servant Hassan. Indeed, Suleiman is at his least convincing at the novel’s rather sugary conclusion.

Nevertheless, this is a moving and significant debut. Suleiman’s mother tells her son off for idealising Scheherazade, the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights who managed to change a murderous, king into a moral and benevolent ruler through the power of her stories. Maybe Matar, too, is doubtful that he can change the world - or the government of Libya - with this tale of humanity stifled by oppression, but he has provided an opportune glimpse into the hidden, harsh reality of life under Gadaffi.

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