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.