August 23, 2011
Hisham Matar’s new novel tells the story of a young Arab man burdened with the ambiguous loss of his father, kidnapped from the bed of a Swiss woman in Geneva 1972. Narrated in the first person, the prose evocatively creates the son’s untouchable ache and confusion, starting with the first line of this beautiful, dream-like novel: “There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.”
Anatomy of a Disappearance may be fiction, but Matar writes it from first-hand experience. In 1980, his father Jaballah Matar was accused of being a reactionary to Gaddafi’s Libyan revolutionary regime and forced to flee the country, taking his family with him. Ten years later, when Matar was 19, Jaballah was abducted in Cairo, returned to Libya and lost in Gaddafi’s political prison system. As of this writing, it’s not known if Jaballah is alive or dead.
Matar’s fictional story unfolds in Egypt, Switzerland, Paris and London, beginning with the time the narrator Nuri el-Alfi is 12-years-old and on vacation with his widowed father at a beach resort in Alexandria. There they meet the alluring 26-year-old English Mona for whose attention Nuri competes with his father. It is 1971. After a brief courtship, Kamal Pasha el-Alfi and Mona marry. Nuri’s infatuation with his stepmother is so powerfully sexual that he’s sent away to boarding school in the English countryside. He misses Mona more than his father, and it is to her he writes his yearning letters.
Nuri describes his father as a man in elegant tailored clothes with defiance in his eyes who has secret meetings in Geneva and political allies in Paris. Kamal’s private thoughts and life are a mystery to his son, but Nuri understands his father’s past is the reason. Kamal is a dissident ex-minister to the king of an unnamed Arab country. When rebels shot the king in the palace courtyard, Nuri’s parents fled to Paris, where he was born. One time, visiting Nuri at boarding school in 1972, Kamal tells his son in a restaurant never to leave his food unattended on the table to go to the bathroom. “And don’t frequent the same places. Don’t make it easy for anyone to know your movements.” Comments such as these tell us Kamal continues to take political risks.
Mona and Nuri learn of Kamal’s kidnapping from a newspaper Mona reads in Montreux, Switzerland, during the Christmas holiday. The loss, shock and anguish gradually push Mona and Nuri apart. It’s not until 10 years later that Nuri gets at least some answers to the complexity of his father’s life. While the major questions remain unanswered — why was Kamal kidnapped and by whom? What did he do to provoke such actions? Where is he? How to find him? — this exquisite novel comes to a moving and satisfying conclusion and gives insight into what lies behind the headlines when dissidents are mysteriously plucked from their family lives in foreign countries.
Anatomy of a Disappearance is Hisham Matar’s second novel. Born in New York City to Libyan parents, Matar spent his childhood first in Tripoli and then Cairo. His first novel, In the Country of Men, received high acclaim, including being a nominee for the National Book Critics Circle award and short-listed for the 2006 Man Booker Prize. The story takes place in Libya during Gaddafi’s reign of terror. The viewpoint is from a nine-year-old boy, narrating as an adult.
August 17, 2011
Karin Alvtegen’s most recent crime novel is one of the best I’ve ever read. This highly praised and award-winning Swedish writer weaves a captivating story of murder and deception with secrets that shock. Several times, I slapped the book down against my lap and gasped out loud, Oh my gosh! I can’t believe it! Yet it’s not just the shock value that makes the plot intriguing, it’s also the sophisticated nature of the lies that are designed to keep a family’s reputation in good standing. So not only does it feel like you’re on a thrill ride, but also held close in a smart, engaging and mysterious conversation.
Before I continue, I need to mention that Shadow is not yet published in the U.S. I purchased my copy from the London Review Bookshop. Having read so many overseas reviews/comments that lead me to believe the book would fall under the “unputdownable” category, I had to read it.
Shadow was first published in Sweden in 2007 and then in Great Britain in 2009, translated by McKinley Burnett. It opens with a mother abandoning her four-year-old boy at an amusement park. Next, we leap ahead 31 years to the death of 92-year-old Gerda Persson, who’s died from natural causes. There’s no apparent connection to Gerda and the boy, so there’s quick curiosity about what Alvtegen is up to.
A woman from social services enters Gerda’s apartment to close out her life and make funeral arrangements because neither the police nor the home help had been able to locate a relative. This government stranger unwittingly becomes a catalyst that opens dark secrets connected to the abandoned little boy and the esteemed Ragnerfeldt family Gerda served as a maid.
Alvtegen presents us with a fascinating cast of characters whose present and past lives unfold in alternating chapters, unveiling their misguided hopes and indiscretions. At the center is Nobel Laureate Axel Ragnerfeldt, a shy, elderly novelist now silenced by a paralyzing stroke. There’s his wife, Alice, an alcoholic who wishes she could have another chance at her life, and their son, Jan-Eric, who lectures about the Ragnerfeldt literary canon and repeats the sins of his father. Also among the cast is Kristoffer Sandeblom, Gerda’s surprised sole beneficiary, a young man who’s never met the woman.
The deadly dynamite of Gerda’s death rolls slowly through the chapters, building tension in key moments that include Jan-Erik’s search for a photo of Gerda among his father’s papers and Kristoffer’s meeting with Axel’s tormentor, Torgny Wennberg. Wennberg notified the social worker he’d attend the funeral, and she referred Kristoffer to him, trying to help the foundling make sense of his connection to Gerda. Wennberg has the power to crush Axel’s lauded reputation.
That’s as far as I’ll go, so as not to give anything away for readers who want to do as I did and pay an exchange rate of 1.60 British pounds sterling, let alone a hefty shipping charge from Royal Mail. I’ve only done that one other time, in 2006, for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which was published in the U.S. a few months later. I blame that on my collecting insanity — I wanted a true first edition of the book, not the American first.
Alvtegen’s crime novels Missing, Betrayal and Shame are published stateside. Missing won Sweden’s most prestigious crime novel award, the Glass Key, in 2000. Alvtegen is the great niece of Astrid Lindgren, author of the Pippi Longstocking books, a childhood favorite.
August 6, 2011
Pigeon English is one of those publishing stories that gives hope to every yet to be discovered new novelist. It was found in a British literary agent’s slush pile, sent by the author Stephen Kelman, who wrote it in six months after being laid off from his job. The agent signed him as a client and sold his debut in seven countries. This summer, Kelman’s novel about gang warfare in a London housing project was long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
It bears mentioning that some of the British hype over this book has to do with the story drawing heavily on the murder of 10-year-old Nigerian Damilola Taylor in a London housing project. The senseless brutality that occurred in 2000 dominated headlines and enraged the public. Security cameras caught video of the young boy joyfully running home, lost in a private game, only later to be found stabbed in a stairwell, where he bled to death.
I wish I had known of this connection to a real crime before I read Pigeon English, published last month in the U.S. I realize one shouldn’t need a story explained before you read it — there’s no clearer sign of its failure — but much of Pigeon English was lost to me because I didn’t understand what the story was driving toward and why I should care about the protagonist. Often, location references and slang language perplexed me.
The novel opens with a boy murdered outside a fast-food restaurant. Harrison (Harri) Opuku, an 11-year-old Ghanaian boy, observes the bloody crime scene. He’s newly arrived to this gang-ruled area with his mother and older sister Lydia, while his father, grandmother and baby sister, Agnes, remain in Ghana. Harri speaks in a grammatically incorrect, slang-infused child-like staccato that over-explains observations he’s not old enough to understand. He’s a typical kid excited about the newness of life. His behavior is endearing and humorous, especially when he and his best friend Dean try to solve the murder case by determining a person’s guilt from signs such as “ants in your pants” and “biting your fingernails.”
Harri fails to detect the deadliness of the evil surrounding him, whether it be his aunt’s boyfriend dealing in counterfeit visas and wielding a baseball bat called Mr. Persuader, or his friend Jordan showing off a knife kept in his trousers. There’s a pigeon that watches over Harri, although Kelman takes that relationship a little too far by occasionally entering into the pigeon’s viewpoint, giving the bird a guardian angel-like persona that’s silly and forced.
Pigeon English may be interesting and uniquely written, but I didn’t find it very involving. There’s that aforementioned problem of why Harri should matter to us. Also, the murder mystery sits too far in the background to spark narrative tension, and the occasional clues about it offer no more intrigue than Harri’s chatter about super heroes or his Diadora trainers. If you’re willing to read up on the Damilola Taylor case, though, there’s a greater chance you’ll connect to Harri’s story, which comes to a devastating end.