‘Libya is being eaten up by the disease of revenge’ | Hisham Matar

Ahead of his participation at this year’s edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, world-famous Libyan writer Hisham Matar speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about the genesis of his acclaimed novels In the Country of Men and Anatomy of Disappearance, and the writer’s role in making sense of the Libyan crisis

The reaction to In the Country of Men was pretty explosive – both from critics and fellow novelists, such as JM Coetzee. How did it feel to get such glowing recognition for your debut, and what kind of nerve do you think it struck?

It was wonderful that the book gained the appreciation of authors whose work I admire and respect, such as Mr Coetzee. But the biggest reward did not come from praise or prizes, but from the pleasure and challenge of writing the book itself. I enjoy my work, and get pleasure from the daily toil. It’s hard work, but it is deeply rewarding. This is why if I have any advice to a young author it is to work and enjoy the work. Everything else is extra. As to why the book did well, I am the wrong person to ask, but I would say perhaps because of its sentences and what they are about. All worthwhile books reach into a silence, and in that sense mine is no different. 

How would you describe the progression from In the Country of Men to Anatomy of a Disappearance? In terms of the ratio of autobiography to fiction, and in terms of both their formal make-up and their commentary on the state of Libya, how do you think they differ and/or feed off each other?

Whereas In the Country of Men focuses on a rupture and its consequences, Anatomy of a Disappearance is concerned with how to endure loss, how an absence can often seem a presence. Both novels are part of a similar territory, but approach it differently. They are both, of course, books from a son’s point of view, and are about sons and fathers, as is my third book, which will be out next year, and is my nonfiction contribution to this theme. Its title is The Return, and it takes as its starting point my visit to Libya in 2012, which was the first time I returned to Libya in thirty-three years. 

Having been exposed to arguably some of the highest echelons of contemporary literary culture – by dint of the awards you’ve both won and been shortlisted for, as well as being published by the likes of Penguin – how would you describe the state of literary fiction today?

It would be hard and probably inaccurate to give a general view. For what it’s worth, my impression is rather positive. I think the appetite for serious fiction is there, and, if anything, authors and publishers stand more of a risk of underestimating it. 

It is exactly because of the internet and television, and all the other distractions, that the need for a more considered and deeper engagement with nature, narrative, ideas and history is made more urgent and necessary. If I have a criticism, it is for the current obsession with identity, by which I mean an unjustifiable focus on the provincial characteristics of a work of literature rather than its universal value. 

What role could your work, and Libyan contemporary literature, can play in the much needed reconciliation process in Libya, which is plagued by deep divisions (tribal, regional, political etc.)?

Libya is being eaten up by the disease of revenge. In her 1847 masterpiece, Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë writes, “Treachery and violence are spears pointed at both ends – they wound those who resort to them worse than their enemies.” If you want to see a vivid example of this, look at Libya today. 

Literature helps you to see both ends of that spear. It trains one’s ability to analyze and empathize with both sides of an argument, and therefore can increase the territory of compassion. 

It would be too simplistic to say that if people read more, they would fight less. History does not bear this out. But I think reading great literature is an integral part of an individual’s education. It, together with the other arts, is central to the peace and prosperity of society, not least of all because of its ability to make us sympathise with characters who are entirely different from us, and therefore literature can acquaint us with the fundamental truth about human nature, that we all share essential qualities, and that what binds us together is far more significant than what divides us.

Given that your father was abducted and handed to Libyan secret services and his whereabouts are still unknown, how easy is it to forgive, reconcile and live next door to enemies?

Forgiveness is never easy. It’s not a passive or weak activity, but rather an active engagement with the past. It cannot be a one-way street, though. One needs accountability and remorse. In other words, what’s important is the recognition of the injustice, by which I mean an understanding on the part of the perpetrator of the extent and measure of their crime, the consequences of their action. But, yes, before all this, there is a private liberation that can be attained, one not hinged on anyone else. And perhaps for this reason it is the most difficult. It is gained only through silent, solitary steps, until the heart shifts its hunger for revenge into a desire for forgiveness. 

Is the cycle of hate, antagonism and violence that has gripped the country inevitable or will it return to normality?

I said during the revolution that it would be much easier to defeat Gaddafi in the battlefield than in our psyche, where he still lives. Gaddafi not only ruled the country for two generations, but he was engaged in a project of re-educating the populous, instilling a misguided understanding of power, where authority is exercised through coercion, humiliation and violence, rather than negotiation, compromise and mutual respect. 

These days, I’m as despairing as the next man, but I know history must take its course and once the vying factions tire, they would have to do the only sensible thing, which is to sit and talk. The tragedy is that in the meantime, cataclysmic damage is being inflicted on the people and their young.

Hisham Matar will be reading at the Xth edition of the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, by Inizjamed at Fort St Elmo, in Valletta, on August 27, 28 and 29. The readings start at 20:00, entrance is free. On Friday, Matar will read from his novels and answer questions by Albert Gatt.

The Festival, part of the Literature Across Frontiers initiative, is supported by the Malta Arts Fund, Heritage Malta, Arts Council Malta, Valletta 2018, Għaqda tal-Malti – Università, The Fortress Builders, Aġenzija Żgħażagħ, Malta Tourism Authority, Centre for Slovenian Literature, Slovenian Book Agency, and Reel