In The Country Of Men Hardcover – Oct 17 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, Matar's debut novel tracks the effects of Libyan strongman Khadafy's 1969 September revolution on the el-Dawani family, as seen by nine-year-old Suleiman, who narrates as an adult. Living in Tripoli 10 years after the revolution with his parents and spending lazy summer days with his best friend, Kareem, Suleiman has his world turned upside down when the secret police–like Revolutionary Committee puts the family in its sights—though Suleiman does not know it, his father has spoken against the regime and is a clandestine agitator—along with families in the neighborhood. When Kareem's father is arrested as a traitor, Suleiman's own father appears to be next. The ensuing brutality resonates beyond the bloody events themselves to a brutalizing of heart and mind for all concerned. Matar renders it brilliantly, as well as zeroing in on the regime's reign of terror itself: mock trials, televised executions, neighbors informing on friends, persecution mania in those remaining. By the end, Suleiman's father must either renounce the cause or die for it, and Suleiman faces the aftermath of conflicts (including one with Kareem) that have left no one untouched. Suleiman's bewilderment speaks volumes. Matar wrests beauty from searing dread and loss. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
From School Library Journal
Adult/High School—This is the story of the impact of small revolutions, not on the men and women who participate in the upheavals, but on the children who barely understand the world in which they find themselves. Suleiman is a nine-year-old in Qaddafi's Libya, proud of his country and his father, and worried about his mother's "illness." He is unprepared to understand the danger his father, a believer in democracy, is in, or the role that he, just a child, must play to protect his family. What is most disturbing is that he must play the games of adults, but without knowing the rules. There is no heroism here, only fear, betrayal, and mistrust. This is a difficult book: the characters are fatally flawed, the plot revels in the gray area of a child's memories and immature perceptions, and in the end there is little redemption. The plot unfolds credibly through the boy's eyes, and it is readers who shed light on the secrets. There is no judgment, and yet there is a heavy patina of guilt in the narrative. Well written, with evocative descriptions of heat and landscape that intensify readers' experience, the story lingers long after the book is closed. Teens serious about understanding the complex nature of patriotism will find much to ponder here.—Mary Ann Harlan, Arcata High School, CA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
When Suleiman, out shopping with his mother, sees his father across the marketplace when he has been told his father is away on business, he becomes confused and intrigued as to why he has been lied to. As they are driving home, Suleiman and his mother are escorted by a government car, right up to their driveway. The subterfuge and intrigue continue and throughout the course of the summer, young Suleiman learns in very personal and profound ways about what it means to stand up for your beliefs against seemingly insurmountable odds, and how some are even willing to die for their beliefs.
Narrated by the now grown Suleiman, Matar weaves a poignant story about a lonely boy who is thrust into the adult world all to quickly and it is the events of the summer of his ninth year that shape the course of his life.
Beautifully written, touching, and highly recommended.
The confusion this boy has in grasping the reality of an adult world & making sense of what is going on politically with his family, his community, makes the book hard to stay focused through however.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
It's not often I can say that I 'treasured' a reading experience. But that was the case with Matar's book. It was worth every penny of extra shipping to have the book in my hands right away.
I can't do the work justice here. Seen through a young child's eyes, it depicts life under the initial days of Muammar Gaddafi's 'Great Revolution.' Gaddafi himself is an off-stage presence in the book - never named, he is referred to others simply as 'The Guide' (he's known officially as 'Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution'). The majority of the action takes place in a single neighborhood. The reader sees how the revolution affects the fabric of Tripoli society. It's expertly and almost delicately told.
It's hard to believe Matar is a debut novelist. 'In the Country of Men' is a work to treasure.
In the Country of Men is a gripping account, from a small boy's perspective, of Gaddafi's infamous terror regime. It shimmers in the triumphs and fumes in the horrors of the the Libyan revolution of 1979, and expertly depicts Libyan culture and customs--the entire "world full of men and the greed of men"--as well. I found this a shocking, affecting read, and be forewarned: this book hits hard and will leave bruises.
There are a several difficult issues tackled in Suleiman's first-person narrative, each coated with a blasé haze of childish charm. The exterior ones among these, include gender inequality and societal persecution, but Hisham Matar dares to venture deeper as the story spins around the values of family, friendship, nationalism, and the definition of loyalty. He portrays in deliberate precision and indelicacy, the oppression of not only women, but also of humans and human rights; this is all poignant, truthful, and startlingly refreshing.
Facets of the narrator's childhood make him the most vulnerable, and yet most potent character. Most of the other characters are shallow or, as with the central themes, influenced by Suleiman's innocence and lack of awareness, but they are nevertheless lyrically and memorably described.
I'll admit this book was a bit slow for first half, but the second half blew me away. In the Country of Men is not the sort of book I'll soon forget. Hisham Matar has woven a brilliant novel on what it is to be family, what it means to grow up, and what it takes to be free, because they are all--the author claims--achievable aspirations... but only to few, in the land of men.
Pros: Raw, uncensored // Stunning literary style with both graceful and repulsive notes // Fascinating perspective of Gaddafi's Libya // Impressive stylistically, historically, and culturally // Mesmerizing and haunting // Unforgettable
Cons: Slow-moving start // Dry at times
Verdict: Hisham Matar's literary debut glitters in the backdrop of 1979 Tripoli and lingers in the yearning mind. Every so often you pick up a book so resonating and so captive of emotional truth, that it sends shivers down your spine and leaves an ache in your chest. In the Country of Men is one of those books.
Rating: 8 out of 10 hearts (4 stars): An engaging read; highly recommended.
Source: Complimentary copy provided by TripFiction in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you!).
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.
Though I first read the print copy of the book, after listening to the unabridged CD version of it, I'd highly recommend it as the reader is terrific--i.e, reads slowly enough for one to digest the material and savor the language and 2) does not overly dramatize it.
FROM INTERVIEWS WITH THE AUTHOR
By the time I was ready to write a review of the book, too many had already been written. However, because my book group thought that the information I'd gleaned from others' interviews with the author added depth to their appreciation of his novel, I decided to post some of it here. And where relevant, I also added further background information via comments on others' reviews.
In interview after interview, Matar insists that Suleiman's story is not his story. "Suleiman's emotionally volatile and unpredictable mother plays a big role in his life whereas my mother and father were both very stable and reliable," Matar explains, adding that he had to research "how children of parents with drinking problems are affected."
However, says Matar, "I deliberately placed the action in the landscape I remember. The house is very much our house, the sea very much the sea I remember....The book was in a way an attempt to revisit the haunts of my youth and thus to try to wean myself of the country I had left and haven't been able to return to for over 28 years now....I failed, of course."
And, according to Matar, "the backdrop of Suleiman's story--the political unrest that was taking place--is based on things that did happen....But when I was Suleiman's age, it was very subtle. I sensed there were some things you could not say. You'd be sitting around the dining table and one of your uncles would say something and everyone would fall silent because they suddenly remembered there was a child at the table and he might carry these words elsewhere and then somebody would get arrested."
There were also public interrogations on TV, which Matar describes in retrospect as "very surreal." And he did occasionally see people he knew, including an uncle, being interrogated even though his parents tried to keep him from seeing any. But by the time he was 15, he says, "My father thought I was old enough to know what was going on in my country" and required him to watch a video of a famous execution. "It was deeply unsettling to me," said Matar, adding that he "loosely based the execution scene" in his novel on it.
Matar has been criticized by some for not writing a more political novel. According to the "Newstatesman," for example, "[Matar's] account provides us with no insight into the Libyan politics of the period, nor, oddly, does it generate any sympathy for the dissidents." Perhaps the reason some expected the book to do both is because of the fate of Matar's father.
Born in NYC while his father was serving briefly as a diplomat with the Libyan mission to the U.N., Matar and his family returned to Libya when he was 3. In 1979, when Matar was 9, his father's name appeared on a list the government wanted to interrogate, not because he was political but, explains Matar, "simply because he was a middle-class intellectual and a successful businessman" and thus "seen by the regime as bourgeoise." The family fled to Kenya and ultimately settled in Cairo, Egypt. It was not until then that Matar's father became a political activist and, says Matar, "began writing against the Libyan regime and organizing other exiles to unite and overthrow Qaddafi."
In 1990, when Matar was in school in England, his father, in Matar's words, "went to the front door and never returned." Though the family tried to find out what had happened to him, all the Egyptian government would tell them, says Matar, was that "he was being held because he'd crossed the line and done too much against one of their allies." Two years later, Matar's father managed to smuggle a letter out of the Libyan prison he'd been in since day 3; the next year they got another. That was l995 and the last time anyone heard from him, in spite of much help from many, including from Amnesty International.
In 2003, Matar wrote a moving piece for Amnesty International about the effect his father's disappearance has had on him and his family. "Torturous," was the word he used to describe the "vacancy" he's since felt. Asked recently how this had influenced his novel, Matar replied, "I don't know. One of the most difficult passages to write was the return of the father after he'd been tortured."
Though Matar's novel focuses on a young boy's inner turmoil and his mother's bitterness/ frustration rather than on Libyan politics, Matar has not been silent about the latter. In February of '07, Matar wrote an op ed piece for "The New York Times" entitled "Seeing What We Want to See in Qaddafi." In it he was highly critical of the 2004 deal the U.S. and Britain had made with the dictator in exchange for his help in their war on terror. One of his reasons, he wrote, was that "no country made it a condition in negotiations that Libya investigate the countless cases of the 'disappeared.' None of them compelled the Qaddafi government to even address the massacre at Abu Salim prison where, one night in June of 1996, more than 1,000 political prisoners were shot and killed." Matar now suspects that his father was one of the victims.
See the comments for the link to Matar's NY Times' article and the comments I added to others' reviews.
Nevertheless, it was inspired by actual events and presents readers with a searing portrait of Muammar Qaddafi's Libya, viewed through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. A complicated story of deception, pride, nationalism and sacrifice, IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN is both timely and poignant, and delivers an important message that is likely to resonate deeply with audiences the world over.
The novel opens as the 24-year-old Suleiman recalls the summer in Tripoli before he was sent away to live with friends of the family in Cairo --- the summer before everything changed. It is 1979 and he is nine years old. Much of his days are spent playing "My Land, Your Land" in the dirt with the boys down the street, helping his mother (Mama) around the house while his father (Baba) is at work and listening to her tell stories of her past or of Scheherazade from A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS. It is dusty and scorching hot. He is carefree --- but not as lighthearted and unburdened as he would like.
In fact, his parents' behavior has been bothering him --- specifically, the secrets they try desperately (but fail) to keep from him. Mama gets "ill" from drinking from the dark bottle by her bedside more frequently than usual, and Baba appears jittery and distracted each night after returning from a long day's work. When he spots Baba walking into a strange building with green shutters and a red towel hung out front during the time he was supposed to have been on a business trip abroad, Suleiman becomes more confused and frustrated by his parents' increasingly apparent deceptions.
Then, when the father of his best friend and next-door neighbor Kareem, a confidant to Baba, is taken into custody by men in a white town car and later interrogated on public television by the Libyan Secret Police, Suleiman begins to feel like he and his family are in grave danger as well. But when he confronts his mother and their family friend, Moosa, about it after more men in a white town car stop by looking for Baba, and Mama responds by burning all the books in the house (including Baba's papers) and hanging a massive portrait of Qaddafi in the living room, Suleiman feels even more bewildered --- and scared. Especially the day that Baba doesn't come home.
With the phone ringing off the hook, and Mama and Moosa whispering to each other in the kitchen without giving him any comprehensible explanation, Suleiman soon takes matters into his own hands and does the only thing he thinks might help Baba and save his family: he befriends the man in the white town car who asks Suleiman for "a list of Baba's friends, as many names as possible, to vouch for him."
Meanwhile, Mama is behaving stranger by the minute. She bakes a cake for Ustath Jafer and Um Masoud, the government official and his wife across the street. Not soon after, a beat-up and bludgeoned Baba is allowed to return home and a somewhat stifled order is restored before the still-befuddled Suleiman is shipped off to Cairo to live under the care of Moosa's father, Judge Yaseen.
What makes IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN so haunting is that it is seen through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. Because he is so young, Suleiman can only begin to grasp the kind of monstrosities that could await him and his family --- and anyone else who speaks out in opposition against Qaddafi's brutal rule. As he fumbles through childhood on the way to puberty, he also must come to terms with what it means to live --- and die --- for what you believe is right, no matter what the cost.
Although fictional, the story of the young and naïve Suleiman and his family is not so far-fetched. Countless families are torn apart by politics, warring faiths and underhanded betrayals, and millions of citizens and dissidents are persecuted daily for supposed crimes against their countries. IN THE COUNTRY OF MEN touches upon just one of these life-changing stories that pulls just as much weight as if it were heard on the evening news. A noteworthy debut from a promising young author.
--- Reviewed by Alexis Burling