Book Review | Anatomy of a Disappearance

Award-winning Libyan author Hisham Matar continues to explore the theme of missing fathers, Rose Lapira discovers.

Author Hisham Matar’s father Jaballa was a Libyan diplomat who became an opponent of the Libyan regime and eventually disappeared in prison.
Author Hisham Matar’s father Jaballa was a Libyan diplomat who became an opponent of the Libyan regime and eventually disappeared in prison.

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar was published in Britain barely a month after the beginning of the Libyan revolution. At the time, Matar - who had vociferously criticised Gaddafi - was living in exile in England, and had already published the highly successful novel In the Country of Men, which was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

Both novels are about dictatorships. However, they also share another similarity: the disappearance of a father, as seen through the eyes of a young boy.

Both are, in a way, semi-autobiographical. Matar's father Jaballa was a Libyan diplomat who became an opponent of the Libyan regime and eventually disappeared in prison. He had managed to send two messages to his family in 1992 and in 1995. In 2010, Matar received another message which indicated that his father was still alive. 

But when Libya's prisons were opened during the revolution, Jaballa Matar was not among the prisoners.

Hisham Matar was born in 1970 in New York, when his father was still with the Libyan delegation.  Eventually the family fled to Egypt and lived in Cairo. Hisham went on to London in 1990 to study architecture. His father was kidnapped by Egyptian agents and handed over to Libya, where he disappeared forever.

Knowing about the background of the author, on reading Anatomy of a Disappearance one immediately thinks of Libya. However strangely enough, the story takes place in an unnamed country, which could easily be Iraq. At one point in the novel, it is said 'our king was dragged to the courtyard of the palace and shot in the head'.

Matar reads from Anatomy of a Disappearance.

But the deposed king of Libya died in exile at age 94, whereas Faisal II was killed in the revolution of '56. We are also told that the mother's favourite poet happened to be the famous Iraqi poet, Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab.

The story recounts, often in flashbacks and reminiscences, the story of a young boy Nuri, aged nine, who loses his mother while the family is in exile in Egypt, and is living with his dissident father. At age 14, Nuri encounters a beautiful young woman, Mona, with whom he becomes obsessed.

But she marries his father, and Nuri is sent to a boarding school in England. Nuri meets Mona while on holiday in Switzerland, and it is here that his father is kidnapped and disappears. Both try desperately to find out what happened and in the process, they discover shattering secrets about the father's life.

Anatomy of a Disappearance is a haunting, elegiac novel about the heartbreaking longing of a son for his lost father. This is beautifully described in the opening lines of the novel.  'There are times when my father's absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.

'There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places. Everything and everyone, existence itself, has become an evocation, a possibility for resemblance. Perhaps this is what is meant by that brief and now almost archaic word: elegy.'

It is also a coming-of-age novel as it shows Nuri's longings in his life in exile, without family or country. A rather enigmatic and ambivalent mood pervades the story as Matar keeps an emotional detachment in the writing. This is a well-crafted novel, spare and simple in style. It is all the more powerful for the restraint shown by the author when writing about the complex emotions of loss.

In 2010, Matar wrote in an English paper about the need for closure about his father's disappearance, asking: 'Where is the man whose pipe stands in a cup with five pencils I sharpen every morning?  His coat hangs in my wardrobe. Maybe it still fits him.'

Now that Matar knows that his father will never return, will this book bring closure to the author, or is it actually a heightened plea for not forgetting, not only his father, but all those who disappeared in jails all over the world?