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Anatomy of a Disappearance: A Novel Hardcover – August 23, 2011
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Praise for Anatomy of a Disappearance
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY:
Chicago Tribune • The Daily Beast • The Independent • The Guardian • The Telegraph • The Toronto Sun • Irish Times
“For Western readers, what often seemed lacking [in the coverage of the Arab Spring] was an authentic interpreter and witness, someone who could speak across cultures and make us feel the abundant miseries that fueled the revolt. No one plays this role, in my view, as powerfully, as Hisham Matar…Matar writes in English, in extraordinarily powerful and densely evocative prose: he seems uniquely poised to play the role of literary ambassador between two worlds…”--The New York Times
“Mesmerizing. . . . The recent events that have lent topicality to this elegiac novel might easily have swamped a lesser work. Its strength rests in Matar's decision to focus on emotional rather than material details, proving that in art, at least, the personal can trump the political.”—Houston Chronicle
“A haunting novel, exquisitely written and psychologically rich.”—Washington Post
“[A] potent new novel . . . which moves among eerily silent interiors in London, Cairo, and Geneva to evoke the emotional vacuum that follows [a] father’s abduction.”--Vogue
“Outstanding . . . with its stylistic echoes of Nabokov.”—The Irish Times
“Elegiac . . . [Hisham Matar] writes of a son’s longing for his lost father with heartbreaking acuity.”—Newsday
“A son without closure writes sparingly and brilliantly about what it is to suffer loss without end.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Eloquent . . . one of the most moving works based on a boy’s view of the world.”
“A searing vision of familial rupture and disintegration. . . . At once tough and tender, shaped by the sorrows of memory, Nuri's story is searching, acquiring power in its graceful acceptance of the impossibility of certainty. . . . An elegant and smart evocation of the complexities of filial love.”—«Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Two things stood out as I read Anatomy of a Disappearance. First, there was the quiet power of the language, and the author’s control of it. Second, there was Hisham Matar’s ability to tell a story that from the first sentence seems inevitable, yet is full of surprises. I was moved and very impressed.”—Roddy Doyle
“Sculpted in a prose of clutter-free, classical precision . . . a pure demonstration of the strange alchemy of fiction.”—The Independent (U.K.)
“A tenderly written novel with Shakespearean themes, it can be read as a deeply personal account of the losses that tyranny and exile produce.”—The Times Literary Supplement
“Haunting in every sense . . . An absorbing novel that finds its eloquence in what is left unsaid.”—The Sunday Times (London)
“Submerged grief gives this fine novel the mythic inexorability of Greek tragedy.”—The Economist
“A fable of loss, and an often troubling meditation on fathers and sons . . . Hisham Matar is writing from the heart.”—The Guardian (London)
About the Author
Top Customer Reviews
If you are seeking a profound revelation, this is not the book for you. If you are interested in the development of a character who develops in the aftermath of a political kidnapping this is a good choice. The book allows us to reflect on how we see each other and the relationships we form. It also makes us question how much we truly know ourselves and the others in our lives.
The victims of 9/11 are lucky that way. Their loss is marked. We stopped the world for a brief time to give them the solace of our joint recognition of their sorrow. All do not share their good fortune.
I was reminded of this reading a new book by Hisham Matar, Anatomy of a Disappearance, the story of a 14-year-old boy whose father was present in a shared world of hopes and dreams, and then, in an instant, was forever absence. There was no ceremony for this disappearance. Just silent sorrow expected to be borne without a lot of fuss and ado.
"The telephone continued to ring incessantly," Matar writes. The boy's father was kidnapped you see, swept away from the bed he shared with a woman by abductors suspected of targeting him because he was an outspoken critic of the third-world tyrant who ruled his country. "Then after a few days it grew quiet. Relatives and neighbors who might have filled the chairs in the hall if Father had died were silent in the face of his disappearance.... A great emptiness began to fill the place of my father. It became unbearable to hear his name."
That is what silent, unshared, unrecognized, uncelebrated grief looks like: It is a scar borne quietly, a scream no one hears, a rite of passage unaccompanied by the comforting ritual of a funeral. But the disappeared are every bit as dead to those who remain as those who die a physical death.
Matar is a graceful writer. His first novel, In the Country of Men, was critically acclaimed. His prose are elegant, the characters drawn with simple strokes. He draws freely from his own sense of loss, a sense provoked by the disappearance of his own father, a critic of Moammar Qadaffi who was present one day, and gone the next.
Yet for all that, his latest work has an almost clinical feel to it. Yes, the protagonist lost a father, but he never loses his place in the world. He lives in a privileged bubble, with servants waiting faithfully for him in his expatriate Egypt. When his father remarries after the death of the protagonist's mother, the teenager is whisked off to an elite English boarding school. He learns that his father has provided for him in his will, leaving a generous sum with instructions that the boy is not to work until at least age 24. To earn full use of the legacy, he must complete a Ph.D., but not in business or political science, where book learning is inferior to experience.
He returns to Cairo, a newly minted Ph.D., to an apartment kept for 11 years by servants loyal to his family. He moves in to the apartment. The dresser drawers are filled with his father's belongings. The closet in the master bedroom contain his father's suits. There is still hope, horribly agonizing hope, that his father will reappear. It is a hope the son cannot relinquish.
This is a beautifully written story, but it is not really a story about the complete loss of moorings in the world. A less fortunate child would lose a parent and then go on to lose his place in the world. A father can disappear, and the result can be desolation, the loss of connection to a community, of all that the narrator in Matar's new novel takes for granted. Matar writes of a civilized sort of loss. It almost seems a contradiction in terms. Father is missing, but his artifacts remain. This is a polite sort of loss, the absence of a provider, but the maintenance of all the provider left behind.
Some losses are complete and therefore savage. A man can disappear without a trace. He can leave nothing behind but questions, no generous will, no means of providing for those he once loved. Those left behind have nothing. The loss of a provider leaves no home to which to return, no servants to care for the bereaved, no loved one to stand in and provide shelter. Such losses are not even accompanied by the sense of closure a public ceremony provides. These are the silent sorts of loss felt by many year-in and year-out. These losses go unrecognized, but remain real.
The ceremonial recognition of the losses associated with 9/11 felt much like Matar's novel to me: a stylized and almost self-indulgent sort of grief. Those who have experienced the disappearance of a parent, together with the loss of the social world the parent provided, were more alone on 9/11 than on most other days. The celebrants got the lubricant of a stranger's tears, far more than many receive in response to loss. The private silences of the solitary abandoned are much like the "great emptiness" of which Matar tried to write.
Lest you think this is mere theorizing, let me relay simply this: my father disappeared when I was eight. In his wake, we lost all. There was nothing to remember him by. Even my mother lost her way, and I was sent to live with relatives. No ceremony marked the day I was sent to live with folks I had rarely seen before. I read Matar's work with a hunger for recognition that went unmet. The read was as unsatisfying as were the ceremonies devoted to 9/11. Some losses define a person, even when they are so idiosyncratic as to escape the notice of the larger world. It was not a lack of patriotism that turned me sour on 9/11; it was something akin to envy that those who lost that day received so much in return.
Alas, while the prose is still beautiful and I still admired the elegiac tone, this novel draws to a surprising degree on many of the same plot elements as Matar's debut. Again, we meet a young boy with an enigmatic, politically engaged father and the novel is set against the backdrop of troubles in the Arab world (although this time not always IN the Arab world.) In this case, the father seems to be a political exile (from Iraq, possibly? there is a reference to a murdered king) living partly in Switzerland and partly in Cairo. When Nuri's mother dies (another repetition: the mother figure has weaknesses that make her not a strong force in her son's life), it is through Nuri that his father meets the much-younger Mona, with whom the 12-year-old Nuri becomes obsessed. Two years later, it is at her side that he tries to understand what has happened to his father -- why he has been abducted in the middle of the night from the apartment of a woman no one has ever heard of before.
I have two entirely separate gripes with this novel that made me give it 3.5 stars. The first, obviously, is how uncannily similar these novels are. With five years separating their publication, couldn't Matar have mined some fresh material for a second book, especially when both are so short? My second complaint is that compared to book #1, this is less emotionally convincing and less focused; there are too many characters and plot twists (for instance, Nuri's schoolfriend just moves on one day, and vanishes from the book completely.) That made it frustrating to read, and left me wondering whether the author is really as talented as I had believed after reading In his debut early this year.
I'm rounding this up to 4 stars because it is well written and intriguing and likely to appeal to the author's fans. Don't read it if you don't like "literary" fiction or are irritated by ambiguity in a novel.