BEIRUT: The year is 1979 and what nine-year-old Suleiman loves most in the world are mulberries. He eats them by the fistful, climbing a ladder and scaling a neighbor's wall to reach the ripest fruit, gorging himself until his hands are stained and his head is spinning from the sugar and the noontime sun.
Young Suleiman's world is bounded by that ladder, that wall and that tree, which stand on a street named by local idiom for the orchards that were cleared there to make room for the upwardly mobile housing development where he lives with his mother and father.
A consummate only child, Suleiman's interior world is rich and full, but the exterior world is slowly creeping in, and it's ever more sinister.
The year is 1979, and the place is Libya. The author is Hisham Matar and the novel is "In the Country of Men," which has been touted by The Guardian in London, among others, as the literary sensation of the summer.
Matar's narrative is told exclusively through Suleiman, and what is most genius about the novel is also most frustrating - Matar stays true to what a nine-year-old mind can comprehend, and readers are confined to the realities he can grasp.
"In the Country of Men" begins with Tripoli brilliant beneath a beating sun, but the tone darkens almost immediately. Suleiman's father Faraj travels often, and every time he goes away, Suleiman's very young mother Najwa falls "ill" and takes copious amounts of "medicine," which she buys in unlabeled bottles wrapped in paper bags from under the counter at the neighborhood baker. Her alcoholism is never named as such.
But that's only the beginning. Ustath Rashid, a university art history professor who lives across the street, is hauled off one day by a car full of men from the so-called Revolutionary Committee. There are mukhabarat (secret policemen) everywhere, referred to pointedly as antennae, and a palpable fear of - as one character puts it - being put behind the sun.
Eventually, Faraj, an import-export trader who is agitating beneath the surface for democratic reform, is "disappeared," to use a term with painfully common currency in late-1970s Libya. Suleiman's world turns from sweet to sour in an instant.
This is Matar's first novel, though he has previously written with eloquence and force about his own experiences as a nine-year-old in Libya in 1979.
Matar's own father was a Libyan diplomat-turned-dissident who was "disappeared" in 1990, nearly 20 years after he was put on a list of men wanted for interrogation. The last time Matar heard from him was a letter and cassette smuggled out of the notorious Abu Saleem jail in 1995, the year before a massacre in which the Libyan authorities killed more than 1,300 political prisoners.
The novelist's mirror-image biography certainly deepens the sorrow of "In the Country of Men," and since in the book Faraj does return, only to be incarcerated and released again - after he has a counter-revolutionary relapse of sorts, reading passages from the tome "Democracy Now" to a floor of factory workers that have by economic necessity become his colleagues - it suggests a kind of wish-fulfillment that is followed through to the point where fantasy is fouled by the twists and turns of real life and the fallibility of actual human beings. But the book is only semi-autobiographical. In other words, it has a life of its own as fiction.
The round-up of men like Ustath Rashid and Faraj and the thousands of students they inspired is, of course, rooted in historical fact.
As Matar wrote in a moving essay about his father that was published in The Independent (the novelist lives and works in London): "The [Gadhafi] regime ... dismantled one of the most progressive and independent university student unions in the post-colonial Arab world: executing its leaders in public squares and imprisoning hundreds of its members."
In the novel, Ustath Rashid's televised public hanging stands out as one of the most horrifying passages every recorded in print, all the more amplified by Matar's literary language and attention to detail - the pool of urine that stains Ustath Rashid's pants, the way his executors nudge him almost tenderly toward the noose. But most terrifying of all is Matar's rendering of the hysterical, empty madness of the crowd in the stadium that cheers and chants for the execution.
"In the Country of Men" is, as the title would suggest, a novel about manhood and masculinity. Who are Suleiman's role models? Who are Matar's father figures?
Besides Najwa - Suleiman's mother who offers a wicked feminist put-down of the entire Shaharazade and "A Thousand and One Nights" enterprise - the characters are all men, and they seem to suggest conflicting examples, or a composite picture, of what it means to be a man.
But the most explicitly political message of Matar's books is that a nine-year-old boy named Suleiman cannot become a man in Gadhafi's Libya, and that likewise generations of young men have had their growth stunted into submission by totalitarian rule. The quixotic mix of religious piety and authoritarian ruthlessness leaves no room for a boy to become anything other than a trembling wimp, a crook or a suicide.
"In the Country of Men" is not a coming-of-age tale but a portrait of the moment just before, the last gasp of boyhood. And in fact, Suleiman doesn't come of age at all in Libya. The last portion of the novel races the reader through to his adulthood, where he matures in Egypt. His parents ship him off to school, he adopts a Cairene accent and observes: "Nationalism is as thin as a thread, perhaps that's why many feel it must be anxiously guarded."
Hisham Matar's "In the Country of Men" is published by Viking