The Personal is Political

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Narrated by young Nuri, Hisham Matar’s second novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance, tells of a father abducted by a corrupt regime—a story that closely resembles Matar’s own life.

“Don’t transfer the weight of the past onto your son,” warns Ihsan, the mother of Nuri, narrator of Anatomy of a Disappearance.

Man Booker-shortlisted novelist Hisham Matar understands well what it means to bear that weight. Matar’s own father, Jaballa, served the Libyan government in a diplomatic capacity during Muammar Gaddafi’s early years in power, but resigned after several years due to disagreements over policy. Pegged as a dissident, the elder Matar moved his family to Egypt, where they lived peacefully for more than a decade. On a benign afternoon in 1990, Jaballa was kidnapped and returned to Tripoli as a political prisoner, denied access to the outside world. Aside from two letters smuggled through, and the recent testimony of one ex-prisoner who claims to have seen him alive in 2002, Matar’s family has received no news of his whereabouts or condition—or whether he can still be counted among the living—in more than twenty years.

While the central action of Matar’s new novel closely resembles to the tragedies of his own family, it would be reductive to label Anatomy of a Disappearance as autobiographical fiction. Facts and history don’t make this novel as exceptional as it is—Matar’s gorgeous prose and keen psychological insight do.

After the death of his emotionally distant mother, whose “unhappiness seemed as elemental as clear water,” twelve-year-old Nuri and his father, Kamal, meet the bewitching 26-year-old English Mona, with whom Nuri develops a consuming infatuation. “I wanted to wear her as you would a piece of clothing,” Nuri remembers, “to fold into her ribs, be a stone in her mouth.” Kamal whisks Mona back to Cairo, practically overnight, where she is installed as the new matriarch. “Eventually,” Nuri recalls in a moment of chilling frankness, “it would become necessary to resent her.”

While on business in Switzerland, Kamal is kidnapped and “disappeared” by an unnamed Arab government, all in the dead of night. The mystery of his father’s other life as a political dissident, now brought closer to light, drives Nuri on an obsessive quest to find him, and his relationship with Mona darkens, leading them both into an abyss of shame and regret from which neither fully recovers.

Matar’s prose is delicate and tempered: “Anger was sudden. If not for its surprising and perplexing speed, I might have been able to express it more nakedly.” In spite of these mannerisms, dreamlike tropes abound: a woman’s smell is “moist and round,” sunbathers are “bodies…shiny and still in the white heat;” the afternoon hours are “edgeless.” Fragility and boundlessness—the soothing drone of lies and the deafening silence of the truth—are at war in Nuri’s world.

This might explain why so much of the dialogue in the novel rings hollow while the silences seem to proliferate with meaning. Of his late mother, whose death has never been sufficiently explained, Nuri is told of “her great humanity,” and her “strong heart”—words that may as well be ciphers. What more convincingly defines her in Nuri’s consciousness are the rhythms of her breathing, a glance at an empty chair; the “sliver of steam [that] brushed the air then disappeared beside her neck.” All of the principal characters in the novel, Nuri included, are most honest in their physicality; language is their means of evasion.

What drives this tension in Anatomy of a Disappearance is a psychological entanglement so classically Oedipal it might be farcical were it not so compelling. Unmoored in the absence of both parents, Nuri begins to dwell on the various women who orbited Kamal’s world: his lovers. Nuri fetishizes these women (the curve of his mother’s hip, a spot on Mona’s neck), watches them from a distance, lies on their beds—all in a twisted effort to reckon with man he’d never quite known.

When it becomes clear that his father may never return, Nuri—now an adult—leaves Europe for Cairo and slowly, though confidently, assumes his father’s position in the household. He tries on Kamal’s suits, sleeps in his bed. “I do not see him in the mirror,” Nuri explains, “but feel him adjusting, as if he were twisting within a shirt that nearly fits” (an image as unsettling as any I’ve seen in recent reading).

If Anatomy of a Disappearance has a single weakness, it might be argued that Nuri’s youthful perspective limits the level of political engagement the novel can achieve. Kamal’s involvement never finds direct expression. Nuri only provides detail on his father’s political action on a single occasion, when he fantasizes about emulating his father.

I wanted to have believed in and indeed served a constitutional monarchy. I wanted to hate, with the same passion, what he used to call “that infantile impertinence that passes for a revolution,” then suddenly to reemerge, with all my refinement intact, a Marxist, “because each age calls for its own solution.” I, too, wanted secret meetings in Geneva, allies in Paris with whom I had watched history march and worked to change its course.

This strategy of understatement ultimately works to the novel’s advantage: Anatomy of a Disappearance speaks volumes about the indelible link between the personal and the political. Kamal—and, indeed, Matar’s own father—were each left to fates that would make the most hardened among us wince. This call to action, though understated, rivals anything you’d find in the news media. Matar has produced yet another work of discomfiting beauty; one only hopes his own story finds a happier ending.

Tori Schacht is an editorial assistant at W. W. Norton & Company, an independent book publisher in New York. She has reviewed for Rain Taxi, The Rumpus, and Full-Stop, and her reviews have been featured on the Powell's Review-a-Day. She blogs here More from this author →