BEIRUT: Imagine spending three years of your life at work on a novel that tells the story of your father’s disappearance in Libya. You fictionalize the details and develop a stylized plot, which is equal parts psychological thriller and tender rumination on loss.
The cruel and unrelenting truth at the core of the book, however, is that you will never know what happened to your father, whether he is alive or dead. Dealing with that becomes the quiet strength of your writing.
Then, just as the novel is published in the U.K., a revolt in your native country begins, which poses the first serious, existential threat to the despotic regime that abducted and tortured your father 20 years ago. Six months later, just as the book is released in the U.S., rebels take over the capital and liberate the country’s most infamous prison, where you fear your father may have perished.
Suddenly, all of the questions you left unanswered in the book – deliberately, as a means of accepting the unknown and living your life without tidy resolutions – may soon be answered by rapid-fire events in Libya.
Four of the men in your family – uncles and cousins – have already been released. All of them disappeared at the same time as your father. While nothing about him has been uncovered yet, there are documents and witnesses and paper trails emerging that were never forthcoming until now.
All of this is both good and bad for Hisham Matar’s second novel, “Anatomy of a Disappearance.”
The changes in Libya are an extraordinary turn of events for Matar, personally. Nursing the wounds of his absent father for two decades, he has written so much about the effects of the disappearance (in novels, newspapers and magazines) that he risks having no other subject.
While Matar was writing the book, Libya was stuck, apparently doomed to endure Gadhafi’s regime for decades, possibly (thanks to his sons) generations. An elegant fiction was enough to animate the situation, or at least activate a reader’s imagination.
Now that that regime has been knocked out of power, if not categorically defeated, the country has been cracked open to reveal a wealth of potential, euphoria, hardship and struggle. The imagination is flooded.
How can a novel as spare and crystalline as “Anatomy of a Disappearance” hold up under the weight and mess of history? It can’t. As a chronicle of longing, suspicion, jealousy and betrayal, however, the novel hasn’t been made totally irrelevant either.
The book is about a boy named Nuri who lives in Cairo with his mother and father and two servants (a maid and a driver) who drift in and out of the action. The narrative is framed as Nuri’s adult recollections of his tumultuous childhood and he addresses the reader from the standpoint of having just returned from London to take his place in the (now empty) family home.
“There are times,” he begins, “when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.” He all but defines the novel to come as an elegy for his missing father, and then he hits on the unexpected crux of the issue: “My father has always been intimately mysterious even when he was present.”
“Anatomy of a Disappearance,” then, is not only a book about the father who disappears but also a close study in a son’s frustration at never having really known him at all.
Nuri’s parents fled their home in an unnamed Arab country (effectively Iraq grafted onto Libya) before he was born. His father, Kamal, was a government minister and an arch monarchist who disdained “that infantile impertinence that passes for a revolution” but then strategically reinvented himself as a Marxist – albeit in the champagne-socialist style of, say, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (extravagant wealth, beautiful clothes, expensive vacations).
After a time Paris, where Nuri is born in 1958, the family settles in Cairo. Then Nuri’s mother, a stormy sort who suffered “cruel, sudden gaps” in her relationship with her son, dies suddenly of a mysterious illness – or suicide, or alcoholism, or drug abuse. The reader never knows for sure.
With no one to plan the exquisite family vacations, Kamal takes his 12-year-old son to the Magda Marina in Alexandria. There, Nuri meets the fetching, 26-year-old Mona. Eyes agog at her yellow bikini, he takes her foot in his hands and plucks a splinter from her flesh. Nuri is instantly, obsessively in love with Mona, but Kamal marries her.
Further complicating whatever father-and-son competition there is, Mona convinces Kamal to pack Nuri off to an English boarding school.
Two years later, Mona and Nuri, now 14, are waiting for Kamal at the Montreux Palace in Switzerland. He is late. Then Mona, who is trying to improve her French, spots a news item in La Tribune de Geneve. Kamal has been kidnapped, snatched from the bed of Swiss woman named Beatrice Benameur.
From there, “Anatomy of a Disappearance” speeds up and slows down. Mona and Nuri begin a reckless search for Kamal. By the time they get back to Cairo, they are thrown into uncomfortable proximity. Then they drift apart. Nuri makes a life for himself, earns a Ph.D. in art history. Eventually, he returns to Geneva, the scene of the crime, then heads to Cairo, the scene of other palpable misdemeanors.
Along the way, Matar drops a great many hints. The family driver was probably the one who betrayed them all. Nuri looks an awful lot like the maid, Naima, with whom he has a special bond. The son’s search for his father, both before and after his abduction, runs parallel to a strange assortment of entanglements with the women in his life, as if he had two sisters, a possible lover, and no mother at all.
Matar’s refusal to resolve any of the novel’s many mysteries is assuaged by beautiful and thoughtful passages on the condition of not knowing.
The real problem with “Anatomy of a Disappearance” is that it is both the same book and a lesser book than Matar’s dazzling debut, “In the Country of Men.” Published in 2006, that book gave a much fuller and more nuanced account of more or less the same story.
Given all that is now possible in the real-life referent for both novels, maybe Matar will find a new story to tell.
Hisham Matar’s “Anatomy of a Disappearance” is published by Viking in the U.K. and the Dial Press in the U.S.