Although Hisham Matar's debut novel may seem autobiographical --- the 30-something-year-old author shares many similarities with its narrator, Suleiman --- it is purely a work of fiction.
Nevertheless, it was inspired by actual events and presents readers with a searing portrait of Muammar Qaddafi's Libya, viewed through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. A complicated story of deception, pride, nationalism and sacrifice, IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN is both timely and poignant, and delivers an important message that is likely to resonate deeply with audiences the world over.
The novel opens as the 24-year-old Suleiman recalls the summer in Tripoli before he was sent away to live with friends of the family in Cairo --- the summer before everything changed. It is 1979 and he is nine years old. Much of his days are spent playing "My Land, Your Land" in the dirt with the boys down the street, helping his mother (Mama) around the house while his father (Baba) is at work and listening to her tell stories of her past or of Scheherazade from A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS. It is dusty and scorching hot. He is carefree --- but not as lighthearted and unburdened as he would like.
In fact, his parents' behavior has been bothering him --- specifically, the secrets they try desperately (but fail) to keep from him. Mama gets "ill" from drinking from the dark bottle by her bedside more frequently than usual, and Baba appears jittery and distracted each night after returning from a long day's work. When he spots Baba walking into a strange building with green shutters and a red towel hung out front during the time he was supposed to have been on a business trip abroad, Suleiman becomes more confused and frustrated by his parents' increasingly apparent deceptions.
Then, when the father of his best friend and next-door neighbor Kareem, a confidant to Baba, is taken into custody by men in a white town car and later interrogated on public television by the Libyan Secret Police, Suleiman begins to feel like he and his family are in grave danger as well. But when he confronts his mother and their family friend, Moosa, about it after more men in a white town car stop by looking for Baba, and Mama responds by burning all the books in the house (including Baba's papers) and hanging a massive portrait of Qaddafi in the living room, Suleiman feels even more bewildered --- and scared. Especially the day that Baba doesn't come home.
With the phone ringing off the hook, and Mama and Moosa whispering to each other in the kitchen without giving him any comprehensible explanation, Suleiman soon takes matters into his own hands and does the only thing he thinks might help Baba and save his family: he befriends the man in the white town car who asks Suleiman for "a list of Baba's friends, as many names as possible, to vouch for him."
Meanwhile, Mama is behaving stranger by the minute. She bakes a cake for Ustath Jafer and Um Masoud, the government official and his wife across the street. Not soon after, a beat-up and bludgeoned Baba is allowed to return home and a somewhat stifled order is restored before the still-befuddled Suleiman is shipped off to Cairo to live under the care of Moosa's father, Judge Yaseen.
What makes IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN so haunting is that it is seen through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. Because he is so young, Suleiman can only begin to grasp the kind of monstrosities that could await him and his family --- and anyone else who speaks out in opposition against Qaddafi's brutal rule. As he fumbles through childhood on the way to puberty, he also must come to terms with what it means to live --- and die --- for what you believe is right, no matter what the cost.
Although fictional, the story of the young and naïve Suleiman and his family is not so far-fetched. Countless families are torn apart by politics, warring faiths and underhanded betrayals, and millions of citizens and dissidents are persecuted daily for supposed crimes against their countries. IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN touches upon just one of these life-changing stories that pulls just as much weight as if it were heard on the evening news. A noteworthy debut from a promising young author.
--- Reviewed by Alexis Burling
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