Countries don’t come any more alien than present-day Libya. Years of censorship have insured that the bulk of our knowledge comes from maps and CIA estimates: It forms a sparsely populated collar on the African continent, is padded by Egypt and Algeria, was once ruled by the Ottomans and later, briefly, by the Italians. Since September 1969 it has been patrolled by the henchmen of military dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. His adventurist politics and stubborn pursuit of WMDs resulted in a costly isolation from the international community that ended only a few years ago when he extended an olive branch to the West, gloating over what has been called the “Libyan Model” of dialogue and negotiation. Sanctions were relaxed, though fears were not; Qaddafi is still alive, hatted darkly, his tinted aviators watching from propaganda billboards across the country.
Hisham Matar’s powerful debut novel, which was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, tries to pry the lid off this quietly simmering caldron. In the Country of Men is set in 1970s Tripoli, “brilliant and still” under the sun, dotted with “occasional gray patches of mercy carved into the white of everything.” We are listening to the voice of 9-year-old Suleiman, Slooma to his beloved father, a prodemocracy dissident constantly on the run from the authorities. Anxious Suleiman spends his days with his mother, who paces the house frantically smoking cigarettes and makes frequent trips to the baker for a “medicine” drink that is banned in the country and must be hidden under her seat on the drive home. At traffic signals Suleiman and his mother have to avoid eye contact with government personnel: “Everyone knows you mustn’t overtake a Revolutionary Committee car, and if you have to, then you must do it discreetly, without showing any pleasure in it.”
This intimate tone (“everyone knows”) is a clever trick. Suleiman speaks as if to someone familiar with his surroundings and is therefore the best kind of tour guide: A neighbor being dragged out of his house by government operatives is eerily described as wearing “that strange embarrassed smile of his.” He is manhandled and thrown into a car that has been waiting outside his house like “a giant dead moth in the sun.” Another neighbor, Ustath Jafer, is known to be an “Antenna,” a government spy. In front of his wife you must say things like, “How wonderful the revolution has been for this country!”
At home you can curse the regime, but only in cautious whispers; the telephones are tapped, the television screen flooded with the faces of political prisoners. Ustath Rashid, after being abducted from his house, is interrogated at length on national TV for conspiring against the state. The broadcast is interrupted now and then by a stagnant image of pink flowers. (Young Suleiman suspects this to be the work of the “Guide” himself, who must have a switch by his side with which to tune his subjects in and out of state-controlled programming.) Suleiman’s mother watches the televised interrogation in silence. She knows the authorities will come for her husband. She is scared, but also bitter.
Matar is not afraid of complicating his characters. Young Suleiman is the apple of his mother’s eye but also a daily reminder of his violent conception; Suleiman’s mother was forced into an arranged marriage and rails against the day constantly. This is deeply disturbing for the boy, who has seen his father lying on top of his mother in bed, doing something that did not seem reciprocal. Suleiman’s father, then, is both oppressor and oppressed, as is his shrieking mother. And Suleiman, too, gets a taste of power when he joins the neighborhood bullies in taunting a boy whose father has been labeled a traitor. Suleiman will soon find himself in a similar position.
The novel feeds these concentric ironies until they are ripe for puncture. Intelligence officials barge into the house looking for accomplices, scavenging in drawers for incriminating evidence. They now have enough information on Suleiman’s father to arrest him, but he has anticipated their visit and is in hiding. Suleiman’s fragile mother is left to face them. She burns her husband’s books and hangs a portrait of Qaddafi, “the Guide of the Libyan Popular Revolution,” in the drawing room as a declaration of loyalty to the regime. The intelligence officials are not fooled; one of the men monitors the house all day from inside a car. Suleiman tries talking to the man and finds that he has a voice like an old woman’s, his lips dark “as if they were painted with blue dye.” And then this, the final detail: “Tight curls formed a helmet on his head.”
Government agent, woman’s voice, blue lips, tight curls–only a child would be stirred by this strange combination of menace and delicacy. And only a child would pause to mention it while recounting a much larger political episode. This is because for children all things are equal in their strangeness. Life’s grammar has yet to be decoded, so every little detail is felt vividly and added to the growing arsenal of worldly knowledge. Matar knows this, and he puts it to good use. Sight, sound, smell–these are Suleiman’s friends, his companions on his quest for meaning. As he carries them into the thicket of politics and history, he illuminates for us a world at once familiar and foreign, both banal and extraordinary. We are terrified and mesmerized, but rarely surprised.
We are, after all, In the Country of Men.