Reviewed by William Dobson
Sathnam Sanghera, journalist and author, said that Anatomy of a Disappearance ‘probably represents the most important artistic response yet to the trauma of Arab dictatorship,’ and that ‘Matar is beginning to do for the Arab experience what the likes of Salman Rushdie have done for the sub-continent.’ His first book, In The Country of Men, received huge acclaim and was shortlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Award. His second novel is equally, if not more, impressive.
In many respects there are obvious similarities between the two. Matar chooses to write from the view point of a young boy while discussing grown up themes. Both books deal with political subversion, dictatorship and ruthless oppression for those who dare to stand up to it, clearly ideas about which the author is knowledgeable. As has been much publicised, his own father was ‘disappeared’ by Libyan authorities in 1990 while living in Cairo and little has been heard of him since.
Matar adheres to the old adage ‘write about that which you know.’ But he goes further than that. He writes about what he feels he needs to, that he is implored to by his own situation. This isn’t someone writing purely for the joy of spinning an interesting yarn, but instead his work is an example of someone who feels compelled to tell their story, not just for their own sake but for the sake of the millions of others who too have been affected. However, he deals with these themes from the voice of an innocent child, too young to understand fully the implications of events happening around him. This allows him to present them in the form of a tragic and personal tale of one boy’s experience, rather than as a political commentary or vitriolic attack on Gadaffi’s, or any other Arab dictator’s, regime.
Yet, while there are obvious similarities between Matar’s two books, they also differ vastly. Anatomy of a Disappearance follows the story of Nuri el-Alfi, a fourteen year old boy whose mother is dead and whose father, an important political figure living in exile from an unnamed country (we can assume it to be Iraq), is struggling to cope with the rigours of being a single father. Unlike In The Country of Men, where the novel’s Libyan setting plays an integral role, this isn’t so much an Arab novel as a novel with a protagonist who is an Arab.
It begins in the Magda Marina Resort in Alexandria when father and son both fall for Mona. Beautiful and oozing sensuality, we first meet her by the pool in a vivid and alluring yellow bathing suit, a stark splash of colour in a book whose mood and setting are so often monochrome, reflecting and emphasising the themes of loss and pain. While Mona is happy to indulge Nuri and, at times, even give the impression of leading him on, she marries his stylish, sophisticated and mysterious father. Yet, it is only when his father is kidnapped from a hotel in Switzerland, with Nuri himself now in ‘exile’ too at an English boarding school, that they both realise how little of the man they really knew.
Matar says that he formulated the idea for the book as he gazed upon two men, he presumed them to be father and son, walking arm in arm along an Egyptian beach. As he watched, it occurred to him that they could have been the same person, just at different stages of their lives. This is a recurring theme in an Anatomy of a Disappearance with Mona symbolising the idea, her age falling exactly between the two male protagonists. The disappearance, rather than death, of Nuri’s father only emphasises this further. Unable to come to terms with not knowing whether he is dead or alive, Nuri takes to wearing his father’s clothes and he reads his father’s book, tellingly not from the beginning but from where the bookmark had been left.
The idea of loss is poignantly dealt with by Matar in this beautifully written work, from death and disappearance through to Nuri’s best friend’s mother, an opera singer who has lost her voice and, of course, the loss of a young boy’s innocence. Indeed, as Nuri says in the opening lines of the book ‘there are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I cannot recall the exact features of his face…There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him;’ these heartrending words surely reflecting Matar’s own feelings. The language is so evocative and poetic, and yet simple, mirroring the mind of an adolescent boy perfectly. It has a dreamlike quality, almost conjuring images in sepia rather than colour, full of nostalgia and pain, enhanced by the fact that integral parts of the story, for instance the country from which his father has been exiled or the identity of Nuri’s real mother, are only ever alluded to or suggested.
This will surely become one of the most important works by an Arab voice, something reflected in the nuance and rhythm of his prose, especially in light of events in Libya across 2011. Matar, who is charming, passionate, intelligent yet also understated, humble and engaging, said recently that the Libyan revolution was ‘not about a country removing a dictator, but a people trying to find their voice.’ He’s certainly one Libyan who has already found his.