Sunday, November 3, 2013

Through the eyes of a (wise and too observant) child

In my line of work, I am reading "for work" all the time (unpaid time, naturally), but now that I've left committee commitments behind me there's very little that I have to read in order to do my job.  In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar comes under this category, as I'm running a Muslim Journeys "reading and discussion series" and this short novel of a young boy's life in Muammar Gaddafi's Libya was our first title.

The novel is simple, yet profound. Suleiman is the only child of educated and well-off parents -- his father is a businessman with international connections and his young mother, Najwa, is clearly chafing under the restrictions of her gender, her arranged marriage, motherhood, pretty much her world. She becomes "ill" when her husband is away, taking medicine that the reader quickly realizes is alcohol, and she treats Suleiman more of a confidante rather than her child when she is drinking (among other things, she tells him of her wedding night and her attempted abortion), but it's clear that she loves him deeply.

It's 1979, ten years after Gaddafi overthrew the Libyan king, and the state security apparatus is in full flower. A close neighbor has been arrested and soon names names -- all but the name of Suleiman's father. He is tried and executed on television, which Suleiman watches. Even though the neighbor does not implicate Suleiman's father, he is soon arrested as well. Najwa does everything -- abasing herself at another neighbor's, a man high up the government -- to get him released from prison. As the situation in Libya devolves into even more terror, Suleiman is sent to live at a family friend's in Cairo, never to return.

In the Country of Men is a beautifully written piece of literature, with lush descriptions of the desert and the sea, of Suleiman's suburban neighborhood sitting in the harsh sun, of food and of characters whose names are difficult to distinguish and remember, but whose vivid personalities help to keep them straight; the author doesn't stint either on descriptions of torture, sex and death.  Scheherazade is a delicate metaphor for those around Suleiman who must tell stories in order to survive.  My western sensibilities were horrified at what nine-year-old Suleiman witnessed, both in his own home and outside, but knowing the story is told by him as an adult makes it tolerable. Suleiman is a watcher, an observer of secrets, so there's always a feeling of distance from his narration; it's seems to be his way of coping with what he's experienced.

The narrator Stephen Hoye reads the novel. His sonorous voice tells Suleiman's story with deliberation and precision, that again provides distance from the horrors he is reliving. He provides a slight sing-song rhythm to his delivery that I wonder was an attempt to bring a little Arabic poetry to the story. Other than the names (including a little guttural 'mutt' in the author's last name), Hoye speaks in a neutral American accent. He creates believable characters through lively dialogue that he reads in sharp contrast to the narrative text. A sinister government agent who befriends Suleiman is appropriately threatening. It is Suleiman's intelligent and angry mother who is particularly vivid in Hoye's narration (and, of course, in Matar's prose). Her character is the most complex in the story -- a drunk, an inappropriate sharer with her young son, but the person with the courage to hold her family together, and then to break it apart. More than Suleiman, Najwa is living in Matar's country of men.

The book group served its purpose here: I would never have chosen to read this book, but I'm glad I did. I learned of a history and a culture about which I knew nearly nothing. Am I more tolerant of that previously unknown culture, I'm not so sure. The writing is beautiful. I might find time to listen to his second book as well, since it too is brief. The New Yorker essay he published earlier this year about his return (after decades) to Libya to look for/learn the fate of his kidnapped and imprisoned father is moving and devastating.

[The 19th century oil painting by Ferdinand Keller, Scheherazade and Sultan Schariar, was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
Narrated by Stephen Hoye
Tantor Media, 2007.  7:52

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