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the complete review - fiction
In the Country of Men
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B- : decent account of Libyan childhood under Qaddafi regime in the 1970s, but disappoints in its larger ambitions
See our review for fuller assessment.
Almost all very impressed.
From the Reviews:
- "In the Country of Men, which was short-listed for last year's Man Booker Prize, is a knockout – emotionally wrenching and gorgeously written. It is not primarily a political novel; it's about the relationships in one family and about a boy struggling to make sense of events, both public and private, that he has been exposed to far too soon. (...) Matar's writing is strikingly poetic. (...) The too-hasty coda is the only weak part of the novel." - Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor
- "A poignant tale of personal and collective betrayal, it is also a timely reminder of the brutal methods that Gadaffi employed to become the Arab world’s longest-serving leader. (...) A growing atmosphere of suppressed hysteria underlies the sparse prose, and he is able to conjure up some alluring local colour (...) Suleiman is at his least convincing at the novel’s rather sugary conclusion. Nevertheless, this is a moving and significant debut." - Melissa McClements, Financial Times
- "Ultimately, this is a novel most concerned with relationships between people -- friends, spouses, comrades and, particularly, parents and their children. Matar movingly charts the ways in which love endures in situations of great repression, but also shows how repression threatens everything, even love, putting relationships under a strain that can be unendurable. And whatever his subject, Matar writes beautifully." - Kamila Shamsie, The Guardian
- "What emerges from this moving and graceful novel is the insistence that memories of love will survive the country of men." - David Dabydeen, The Independent
- "Yet if In the Country of Men offers insights into experiences few British readers have had to share, many of its themes are deeply familiar. The anxious bond between Suleiman and his alcoholic mother is one of the strongest elements of the novel; Matar has written not just a story about a troubled country, but also a beautifully nuanced tale of the complexity of family relationships and the painful vulnerabilities of childhood." - Benedicte Page, Independent on Sunday
- "Hisham Matars Roman zeigt in schockierenden Einblendungen nicht nur die malträtierten Leiber, welche die implodierte Utopie von Ghadhafis jamahiriya ausspeit; sondern auch die seelischen Entstellungen, welche das System den Subjekten des 'Bruders Führer' auf&rauml;gt -- ob sie nun zu seinem Machtapparat gehören oder sich ihm widersetzen." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "Matar seems to have set out to write a novel about a lonely child in Tripoli but -- perhaps to tempt a publisher -- shoehorns in Libyan politics under Gaddafi in a manner that precisely tallies with western stereotyping. (...) Sulieman relates these events with a minimal appreciation of what his father and his comrades were trying to achieve. His account provides us with no insight into Libyan politics of the period, nor, oddly, does it generate any sympathy for the dissidents." - Samir El-Youssef, New Statesman
- "The novel really describes the arduous growth, in extremely unfavorable conditions, of a moral and emotional sensibility. In this, as in his clean, supple prose, which vividly evokes days of idleness, long warm afternoons, the sensations of extreme heat, and the coolness of shuttered interiors, Matar resembles the lyrical Camus of The First Man." - Pankaj Mishra, The New York Review of Books
- "In the Country of Men brings to mind 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and the other great science fiction of totalitarianism in the way it posits a cruelly simplified and nonsensical universe. (...) As a novelist, his self- control is impressive. It also helps produce the book's poetic prose." - Lorraine Adams, The New York Times Book Review
- "At a time when western leaders have been cosying up to Gaddafi, it is salient to be reminded of the cruelty of his reign. In the Country of Men is a powerful political novel and a tender evocation of universal human conflicts -- over identity, forgiveness, love. It is due to be published in 13 languages and, despite its short length, took several years to write. It was more than worth the wait." - Oscar Turner, The Observer
- "Across a relatively short span, In the Country of Men continuously surprises us with its thematic richness." - Jonathan Keates, The Spectator
- "The burden of his mother's agony, and his desire somehow to save her, causes Suleiman physical pain; his love for her, which comes close at times to hate, is the strongest theme of an exceptional book." - Katie Owen, Sunday Telegraph
- "With its quivering ambiguities and meticulous delineation of childhood’s disastrously misjudged attempts to decode the adult world, Matar’s novel shares themes with Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Michael Frayn’s Spies, and can hold its head high in such singular company. (...) While the novel’s title emphasises male hegemony, the author subtly undercuts and challenges its assumption of supremacy." - Trevor Lewis, Sunday Times
- "In a text glowing with emotional truth, he constructs his young narrator’s perspective to evoke the nameless and overwhelming feelings of childhood and an adult understanding of the events in which the family is enmeshed. (...) From The Catcher in the Rye to Vernon God Little, the voice of youth spoke in a cynical whine that articulated only the hormonal conflicts of the overprivileged. In Hisham Matar’s extraordinary first novel it becomes again what it was in David Copperfield and Jane Eyre, the universal cry of an innocent victim of institutional sadism." - Celia Brayfield, The Times
- "Hisham Matar's evocative portrayal of the anxieties suffered by a child exposed to the dangers and deceits of politics under a brutal regime, and of the often disastrously misconstrued responsibilities he assumes, is masterly in its pacing, and In the Country of Men contains much lyrical and finely observed writing." - Andrew Van Der Vlies, Times Literary Supplement
- "Though set in one of the world's most peculiar, most despotic countries, this sad, beautiful novel captures the universal tragedy of children caught in their parents' terrors." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
In the Country of Men is narrated by Suleiman, and the bulk of the novel focusses on the summer of 1979, when he was (like the author) nine years old, a boy growing up in pseudo-revolutionary Libya ruled by the then particularly nutty and heavy-handed Muammar El Qaddafi.
The dominant figure in the boy's life is his beloved Mama, but she doesn't seem particularly happy in her marriage, turning to (illegal and shameful) drink (bought under the counter from the baker).
She and her husband don't sleep in the same bed, and the one time Suleiman catches them having sex it certainly doesn't look like she's a very eager or willing participant.
Mama was forced into marriage at the age of fourteen (the groom was twenty three): her brother caught her at a café, drinking cappuccino with two boys and a girlfriend.
The brother, who had returned home with an (all-)American wife, still stuck to the old ways as far as his little sister went: he ratted her out to the family, and to save their 'honour' they married her off as soon as possible.
It's something she still hasn't gotten over.
Baba is a more distant figure, away on frequent business trips, apparently oblivious to much that's going on at home (Suleiman says he never found out about "Mama's illness", as he calls her drinking).
It turns out that sometimes he isn't away on business at all, as he is active in an underground movement aimed at liberalising the totalitarian and ruthless Qaddafi regime.
Mama, who refers to the day of her marriage as "that 'black day'", obviously has issues, and her husband's illegal -- and hence family-endangering -- activities don't help matters much.
A like-minded neighbour, a professor, Ustath Rashid, is a close friend (and brother in arms) of Baba, and Ustath Rashid's son, Kareem, is a good friend of Suleiman's, despite being three years older.
Among the neighbours is also the much more sinister Ustath Jafer (and his gossipy wife), "a senior member of the Mokhabarat, trained in Moscow by the KGB".
After Ustath Rashid is dragged away by the authorities things fall apart.
Baba is essentially on the run, his entire group under threat.
The adults -- specifically Mama and Moosa, an Egyptian family friend -- don't explain much of what's going on to the boy, leading to further confusion and complications.
Panicking, they try to protect Baba -- but Suleiman inadvertently continues to get in the way.
He also doesn't treat his friend Kareem as he should .....
(It's unclear why the adults are so secretive around Suleiman, while letting him blunder around in a way that certainly does not help their cause.
If they're trying to protect the boy they do a terrible job of it -- and curiously appear to have no compunctions about, for example, letting the nine year old watch the public execution of his friend's father on TV.)
Baba gets in deep, deep trouble, but Baba is also saved (not his honour, but at least his life) -- and once he is a husband who just needs his wife (and who can't further endanger his family because he is no longer politically active), Mama also changes her tune and attitude.
So, for example, when Suleiman conveniently walks in on them having sex again, lo and behold, Mama seems to really be into it now.
In this book of oddly mixed messages, it's Suleiman that is then disposable, packed off to Egypt, out of their lives.
Yes, he's being saved from a horrible regime, but he is also separated from his family and his friends; it's hard to imagine him not seeing himself as having been cast out, a traitor.
Certainly, the small acts of betrayal and unkindness towards his friends weigh heavily on him, and no one has ever tried to make him feel better about them, a burden he has to carry around with him.
But then Baba ratted out his comrades, too, so maybe his parents just feel that betrayal runs in the family and there's no need for excuses or explanations -- much less absolution.
Matar does a decent job of conveying the child's confusion in face of the events around him.
Politics remains largely incomprehensible to him -- he has no clear idea what his father is supporting, and like all the other boys secretly admires the terrible Ustath Jafer (and the power he has).
He is confronted with the outrageousness of the regime -- the secret service watching their house and trying to elicit information, the tapped phones, some of the torture inflicted on those who challenge the regime -- but doesn't seem to recognise it as evil (at least not to the extent of understanding who is behind it, and for what reasons).
Mom and Dad do an absolutely terrible job of teaching their son anything (and it's only when things have gotten completely out of hand that he complains: "You always lie. I am not a child and you always lie.")
Vain Baba hides from his son when he returns home from custody, not wanting the boy to see what they did to him -- despite the further confusion that causes the poor boy (since there are no other explanations, Suleiman actually comes to believe the body in the next room may already be a corpse, that Baba has been killed).
The book is narrated by twenty-four year old Suleiman -- the age his mother was when she sent him away to Cairo -- and the last few chapters, some fifteen pages, describe his life since that summer of 1979.
It makes for an odd contrast with the rest of the book, which focussed entirely on the nine year old's point of view (and admitted almost no mature analysis of the events, simply taking and recounting them as they came).
It both spoils the earlier approach, and undermines it, leaving the reader wishing for that mature reflection and attempt at understanding that the older narrator could (but didn't) provide.
It's unclear what In the Country of Men wants to be.
It describes the atmosphere of life in Libya under a bad regime, but there's little that is new here.
Yes, Libya is a different exotic locale underrepresented in the international literature, but the basics are, let's face it, a dime a dozen: the 20th and 21st centuries have offered countless regimes where similarly terrible things were or are perpetrated, and we seem to have had accounts (fictional and non) of every variation.
(That doesn't mean this particular one isn't worth telling, but account has to be taken of what's come before to avoid it being merely 'just another of those stories' (as this one is dangerously close to being).)
Indeed, it's striking how little sets In the Country of Men apart: not only could the basics (the crack-down, the torture, the general atmosphere) just as easily be transposed to any number of other regimes and countries, but so could much of the detail.
Only a few final touches make it specifically Libyan.
So what has to set it apart is the nine year old boy's perspective, and here too Matar does not do anything exceptional.
He does convey how separate from the adult-world Suleiman is, kept at a distance (emotional and, especially, intellectual) by everyone, but it's not clear that this is intentional: Matar seems to want to convey what the adults are going through, but falls short.
Both Mama and Baba remain mystifying figures -- as perhaps they really were for the child.
But it's frustrating for the reader, because Matar does not leave the confusing things about them at the child's level but rather can't help but offer something of an adult perspective -- and there he offers far too little.
Similarly, the relationships between the children of the neighbourhood are too obviously (and occasionally) used for literary purposes; less or more again would seem to be preferable.
The overall impression is of events that are too much for a child to digest: fair enough (and even that could be compelling) but what Matar regurgitates (and occasionally chews on) isn't entirely satisfying.
There's nothing new, nothing different, and, most importantly, very little that is profound here.
It's a sad and occasionally poignant tale, but tragedy alone doesn't make a novel.
(This is also a book not helped by the whiff of autobiography, feeling neither really true to life nor like adequately creative invention.)
There are some well-written and effective scenes, and some good material here, but the novel as a whole isn't convincing.
The fact that Mama and Baba are neither fully realised nor sympathetic characters is probably the biggest problem, but far from the only one.
It is a book that feels carefully yet ineffectively constructed.
A worthy failure, but disappointing nonetheless.
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In the Country of Men:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary British fiction
- See Index of books from and about Africa
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About the Author:
Anglo-Libyan author Hisham Matar was born in 1970.
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© 2006-2009 the complete review
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