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In the Country of Men: A Novel Paperback – February 26, 2008
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The Amazon Book Review
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"A poetic and powerful account ... resonant with the details of a Libyan childhood.”—Wall Street Journal
“Graceful.... Quietly, but with the insistence of a tolling bell, Matar lays bare for Suleiman both public and private worlds of overlapping male power, role models, standards and styles. At its intimate center, the novel calibrates the boy's shifting, decreasingly innocent perspective as he himself becomes implicated by cruelty and betrayal.”—Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Matar is a careful, controlled writer. His restraint—the spaces and the light between his words —make reading his work a physical as well as an emotional experience.”—Los Angeles Times
“Moving ... complex .... [Readers will] be haunted by Suleiman, his fate and his eventual awakening to the complexities of adult relationships.”—Seattle Times
“Matar writes in a voice that shifts gracefully between the adult exile looking back and the young boy experiencing these events through his limited, confused point of view.... This sad, beautiful novel captures the universal tragedy of children caught in their parents' terrors.”—Washington Post Book World
“A remarkably perceptive and affecting portrait of a young boy's premature political awakening.... [Matar] expertly builds an atmosphere of palpable tension, and though this novel never delves directly into politics, the menacing pall cast by political tyranny looms over the proceedings.”—Miami Herald
About the Author
Hisham Matar was born in 1970 in New York City to Libyan parents and spent his childhood in Tripoli and Cairo. He lives in London and is currently at work on his second novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
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The sensual description of the heat that is produced in the open sun reminded me of the beach walk in Camus' The Stranger. I felt my own skin burning and blistering as the narrator hops across a hot roof at midday.
The ending was the only slight let'down, as the group agreed that it dropped off with too little information to tie together all the loose ends about the motivations of the parents and their now adult son.
I was immediately captivated. I am amazed the Mr. Matar wrote it directly in Englgish and not in his native tongue. In my opinion, there was not a wasted word in the book. It is an example of the less linear and more colorful way that my friends from the Middle and Far East express themselves. Also, this story reveals how people who live in life-threatening situtaions learn to be exceptionally observant of the smallest details.
There is much more to this story than boy growing up in a totalitarian culture. All of us should open our minds and pay attention. It stimulated me to pose several provocative questions for the discussion group that I will not include here.
Though I first read the print copy of the book, after listening to the unabridged CD version of it, I'd highly recommend it as the reader is terrific--i.e, reads slowly enough for one to digest the material and savor the language and 2) does not overly dramatize it.
FROM INTERVIEWS WITH THE AUTHOR
By the time I was ready to write a review of the book, too many had already been written. However, because my book group thought that the information I'd gleaned from others' interviews with the author added depth to their appreciation of his novel, I decided to post some of it here. And where relevant, I also added further background information via comments on others' reviews.
In interview after interview, Matar insists that Suleiman's story is not his story. "Suleiman's emotionally volatile and unpredictable mother plays a big role in his life whereas my mother and father were both very stable and reliable," Matar explains, adding that he had to research "how children of parents with drinking problems are affected."
However, says Matar, "I deliberately placed the action in the landscape I remember. The house is very much our house, the sea very much the sea I remember....The book was in a way an attempt to revisit the haunts of my youth and thus to try to wean myself of the country I had left and haven't been able to return to for over 28 years now....I failed, of course."
And, according to Matar, "the backdrop of Suleiman's story--the political unrest that was taking place--is based on things that did happen....But when I was Suleiman's age, it was very subtle. I sensed there were some things you could not say. You'd be sitting around the dining table and one of your uncles would say something and everyone would fall silent because they suddenly remembered there was a child at the table and he might carry these words elsewhere and then somebody would get arrested."
There were also public interrogations on TV, which Matar describes in retrospect as "very surreal." And he did occasionally see people he knew, including an uncle, being interrogated even though his parents tried to keep him from seeing any. But by the time he was 15, he says, "My father thought I was old enough to know what was going on in my country" and required him to watch a video of a famous execution. "It was deeply unsettling to me," said Matar, adding that he "loosely based the execution scene" in his novel on it.
Matar has been criticized by some for not writing a more political novel. According to the "Newstatesman," for example, "[Matar's] account provides us with no insight into the Libyan politics of the period, nor, oddly, does it generate any sympathy for the dissidents." Perhaps the reason some expected the book to do both is because of the fate of Matar's father.
Born in NYC while his father was serving briefly as a diplomat with the Libyan mission to the U.N., Matar and his family returned to Libya when he was 3. In 1979, when Matar was 9, his father's name appeared on a list the government wanted to interrogate, not because he was political but, explains Matar, "simply because he was a middle-class intellectual and a successful businessman" and thus "seen by the regime as bourgeoise." The family fled to Kenya and ultimately settled in Cairo, Egypt. It was not until then that Matar's father became a political activist and, says Matar, "began writing against the Libyan regime and organizing other exiles to unite and overthrow Qaddafi."
In 1990, when Matar was in school in England, his father, in Matar's words, "went to the front door and never returned." Though the family tried to find out what had happened to him, all the Egyptian government would tell them, says Matar, was that "he was being held because he'd crossed the line and done too much against one of their allies." Two years later, Matar's father managed to smuggle a letter out of the Libyan prison he'd been in since day 3; the next year they got another. That was l995 and the last time anyone heard from him, in spite of much help from many, including from Amnesty International.
In 2003, Matar wrote a moving piece for Amnesty International about the effect his father's disappearance has had on him and his family. "Torturous," was the word he used to describe the "vacancy" he's since felt. Asked recently how this had influenced his novel, Matar replied, "I don't know. One of the most difficult passages to write was the return of the father after he'd been tortured."
Though Matar's novel focuses on a young boy's inner turmoil and his mother's bitterness/ frustration rather than on Libyan politics, Matar has not been silent about the latter. In February of '07, Matar wrote an op ed piece for "The New York Times" entitled "Seeing What We Want to See in Qaddafi." In it he was highly critical of the 2004 deal the U.S. and Britain had made with the dictator in exchange for his help in their war on terror. One of his reasons, he wrote, was that "no country made it a condition in negotiations that Libya investigate the countless cases of the 'disappeared.' None of them compelled the Qaddafi government to even address the massacre at Abu Salim prison where, one night in June of 1996, more than 1,000 political prisoners were shot and killed." Matar now suspects that his father was one of the victims.
See the comments for the link to Matar's NY Times' article and the comments I added to others' reviews.
The plot proceeds mostly by hints and implications, producing a gradually increasing sense of dread that is appropriate to this subject matter. The author's portrayal of the protagonist, a nine-year-old boy, is courageous and completely unsentimental, exposing the cruelty and selfishness of this child; his passionate, jealous attachment to his mother; and his ruined spirit as an adult.