Wednesday, July 25, 2007

1984 on the Mediterranean - Book Review of In the Country of Men by Hesham Matter

I heard about this book from an interview of Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air with the author Hisham Mater. In the interview Mater talked of his own life experience as a boy watching interrogations on Libyan TV and the eventual detention of his father and the exile of the family first to Egypt then England. The author came across as a very thoughtful and articulate, his description of his experience as a child coming so close to the horrors of torture clearly left its mark on him.

In the Country of Men, belongs to the semi fiction genre, it is based on real events witnessed first hand by the author but clearly the author let his very creative talents take over and weave a number of other interesting patterns on the same basic setting of Libyan social and political life in the Seventies.

Hot Mediterranean summer days, lots of white sand and the beautiful blue Mediterranean, a nine year only child living with a mother suffering from depression and alcoholism trying to make the most of a bad marriage. A father, who is somewhat remote and a bit caricature like is a businessman turned activist obsessed with making Libya a better place. Libya is very much right out of 1984 with much of the horrors, brain washing and denials and a great "Guide" too.

Mater's developed his own child character and that of his mother's superbly into complete multi dimensional human beings. The cruelty and contradictions in the child were masterfully portrayed. Also his sense of place and time is remarkable, Mater makes you virtually taste the beautiful delicious mulberries or sense the heat burning your feet from walking in the hot afternoons to the Tripoli beach.

The disappointing parts of the book were just two aspects; the limited development of the character of the father who was clearly central to the story. While it may have been Mater's intention to paint a picture from the eyes of a 9 year old and as a result a sketchy picture of the father may have been appropriate, this somehow jarred with me as the narrative was that of a more mature adult reflecting back on childhood days. This maturity came across in many ways but fell short when discussing the father. The second disappointing aspect of the book was the relationship with Karim, the childhood friend. Mater was brilliant in the way he dealt with the Karim relationship throughout the book but somehow appear to have felt compelled to tidy things up for a semi happy ending.

The interview with Terry Gross, revealed the true experience of Mater's life and the real life ending was far worse than the one he offered. Perhaps this would explain Mater's need to retain a distance from his father, even in a work of semi fiction and the relatively rushed ending of the book.

I strongly recommend this book as another beautifully written work in English with a strong Arab Mediterranean sensibility.