Hisham Matar is a gifted novelist, his novels In the Country of Men and Anatomy of Disappearance captivated me, his writing is beautiful and the stories he tells in those novels unforgettable, and I already knew they were inspired on some level at least, by true events. This book, The Return: fathers, sons and the land in between is the story at the centre of Hisham Matar’s life, the story of his father, of exile a disappearance, and finally a return.
“There is a moment when you realise that you and your parent are not the same person, and it usually occurs when you are both consumed by a similar passion.”
Hisham Matar’s memoir is the story of a family, and a meditation on the history and politics of a land beset by conflict and dictatorship. It is also the story of a man’s love for his father. In 2012 with the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime, Hisham Matar embarks on a journey back to Libya – after an absence of more than thirty years. It is a journey that is both physical and emotional, a return to a land that robbed him of his father – where many family members who he hasn’t seen since childhood are waiting to meet him.
“There it was, the land. Rust and yellow. The colour of newly healed skin. Perhaps I will finally be released. The land got darker. Green sprouting, thinly covering hills. And, suddenly, my childhood sea. How often exiles romanticize the landscape of the homeland. I have cautioned myself against that. Nothing used to irritate me more than a Libyan waxing lyrical about ‘our sea’, ‘our land’, ‘the breeze of the homeland’. Privately, though, I continued to believe that the light back home was unmatched. I continued to think of every sea, no matter how beautiful, as an imposter. Now, catching these first glimpses of the country, I thought that if anything, it was more luminous than I remembered. The fact that it had existed all this time, that it remained as it was all these years, that I was able to recognize it, felt like an exchange, a call and its echo, a mutual expression of recognition.”
Hisham Matar, born in New York to Libyan parents is the youngest son of Jaballa Matar, one of the chief opponents to the Gaddafi (spelled Qaddafi in the book) regime. In 1973 the family returned to Libya – where Hisham is surrounded by a large and loving extended family. Jaballa continued to speak out against the regime though, so in 1979 the family had to flee Libya, finally settling in Egypt. The regime keep tabs on the family over the years, and Matar relates a terrifying story of his older brother’s narrow escape, pursued by agents on his way home from school in Switzerland. Hisham elects to go to boarding school in England, a country that is to become his home for many years to come.
In 1990, while nineteen-year-old Hisham and his brother are in London, Egyptian agents take Jaballa Matar off the streets of Cairo and hand him over to the Libyans. Jaballa Matar is never seen again. Over the first few years a few letters are smuggled out of the notorious Abu Salim Prison, eventually making their way to Jaballa’s family in Cairo – after that there is silence. Other family members still living in Libya are also imprisoned by the regime – and Hisham his mother and brother begin a long, sad, tireless journey toward the truth.
The Return is also about Hisham Matar’s life as an artist, his relationship with literature and art, his writing and how he uses his words to help his family discover the truth of what happened to Jaballa Matar and other family members in Libya.
There is so much raw emotion in this memoir – sections that tell of deeds of such horrific brutality and loss that is quite mind numbing. To have to sit back and imagine your beloved father reduced to incarceration in a tiny cell, no contact with the outside world, no kindness or basic humanity, even enduring tortures, knowing perhaps he has even already died, and you didn’t know the moment when, because you were not there to watch the life go out of him. Hisham Matar writes of these things with poignant honesty.
“I heard the stories and registered them perhaps the way we all, from within our detailed lives, perceive facts–that is, we do not perceive them at all until they have been repeated countless times and, even then, understand them only partially. So much information is lost that every small loss provokes inexplicable grief. Power must know this. Power must know how fatigued human nature is, and how unready we are to listen, and how willing we are to settle for lies. Power must know that, ultimately, we would rather not know.”
Recently longlisted for this year’s Orwell prize, which is awarded for political writing, The Return is every bit as readable as a fast-paced novel – as Hisham Matar tells of even finding himself negotiating with Gaddafi’s brother in law for information. The Return is an intimate portrayal of the Matars exile, the raised hopes, rumour and despair that accompanies the disappeared. It is also the story of a return from exile exploring the two sides of one coin, the joy of reuniting with family, reconnecting with a land and its people and the grief that exists when someone is missing.