Hisham Mattar (photo: AP)
Hisham Matar's Novel ''Anatomy of a Disappearance''

The Trauma of Loss

In his first novel, Libyan writer Hisham Matar addressed the impact that the trauma of the Gaddafi dictatorship had on his own family. His new book focuses on how a boy's life is overshadowed by the disappearance of his father. By Volker Kaminski

There are hugely personal implications for Hisham Matar in the transitional period now underway in post-Gaddafi Libya: after decades in London exile, suddenly the Libyan writer is not only witnessing the end of repression and dictatorship, but there is now also the possibility that he may find his father again. In 1990, Matar's father, the diplomat and businessman Jaballa Matar, was abducted to Libya from his exile in Cairo. Since then there's been no news on his fate.

Not that Matar follows a strictly autobiographical line in his novel, titled "Anatomy of a Disappearance". He relates the life of the 14-year-old Egyptian Nuri el-Alfi, whose father disappears without a trace while on a business trip to Geneva.

All the evidence points to a political abduction, but the case remains unsolved. From now on, Nuri has to deal with the fact that no one can tell him where his father is, or whether he is still alive at all.

Up to this point, Nuri has led the privileged life of a diplomat's child. There are servants at home, and one particular employee pays devoted attention to Nuri's needs. His father has a chauffeur and is mostly away on business, he has the authority and distance of a "great man".

The traumatisation of a damaged soul

​​The absence of the father is the very thing that deepens the sense of his own "questionable presence". He often feels guilty, as though he has abandoned his father, he wears his father's watch, and dreams of somehow continuing the life of the lost person.

Unsurprisingly then, one day he turns his back on Europe and returns to the house of his father in Cairo, back to the servants and the friends, to – so it would appear – deliberately set out to continue the life of his father: He sits in his office, and tries on items of his father's clothing which appear to him after so many years to not only be worn out, but also strangely "shrunken".

It appears as though Matar allows his hero no other way out from his vacuum-like pupation. But why should Nuri not try to find happiness in Cairo and live out his life on a bridge between cultures? After all, didn't his father have a fondness for European culture, extolling the virtues of the old cities London and Paris, while as an ex-minister of the Egyptian king, always remaining true to his Arab roots.

In the homeland of his father, Nuri is in any case best placed to sustain the daily hope that his father will one day return.

Volker Kaminski

© Qantara.de 2011

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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