Libyan author Hisham Matar's search for his kidnapped father
For almost an hour, now, Hisham Matar and I have been sequestered in a small Kensington cafe. It's a characteristic, overcast day in London, and we are only a few minutes from Matar's home; but we feel ourselves a thousand miles and many years away, amid the streets of Cairo in 1990. It was from those streets, and in that year, that Hisham's father was kidnapped he says by agents of the Libyan government. Hisham and his family have not seen him since.
"For years as a young man I wondered if what had happened to my father meant a complete waste of everything he'd done, his entire life," he says.
"The revolution in Libya answers that question for me unequivocally. It was men such as my father, and many like him, who carved with their bare hands the stepping stones that led to these events. This isn't some abstract idea: I've seen pictures of demonstrators holding pictures of my father. So there is a clear, tangible link."
Ostensibly Matar is currently granting interviews to talk about his second, and arresting, novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance. But by strange chance, publication has coincided with the radical destabilisation of Colonel Qaddafi's 42-year-old regime, and the world, quite naturally, wants to know what this famous Libyan novelist-in-exile thinks about it.
It's clear that Matar is chained to events in Libya in a way more intimate, and more tragic, even than most Libyan exiles. It was in 1979 that his father, Jaballa - a vocal opponent of the Qaddafi regime, with all the danger that entailed - took his family to the expected safety of exile in Cairo, from where he continued to play a prominent part in the Libyan opposition. Eleven years later Jaballa disappeared; a smuggled letter said that he had been kidnapped by Egyptian secret police and handed to the Libyans, and that he was now in Abu Salim prison in Tripoli.
Jaballa Matar has apparently remained in prison. Today, a handful of further letters and a few eyewitness reports constitute the only evidence that he is still alive. For Hisham Matar, then, current events in Libya hold an additional, vast and personal significance: they may well create the circumstance in which, at last, 21 years of uncertainty are ended, and he discovers the truth about his father.
Such are the circumstances that 40-year-old Matar now occupies that it seems amazing, somehow, that he can sit opposite me in this cafe, and converse as he does. In fact, his presence of mind runs even deeper: at the outset of the unrest in Libya, Matar set up a makeshift newsroom in his London flat with the aim of helping bring the truth to the world.
"Days after the revolution started, I was hearing stories of horrendous killings by the security forces," says Matar. "But these stories weren't reaching mainstream media; even footage from mobile phones wasn't reaching the net because Qaddafi was already blocking access.
"So some friends and I began calling people in Libya, getting stories, cross-checking them, and then when we had something solid we would pass to the newspapers."
It's likely that we know rather more about events in the early days of the Libya uprising than we might have without Matar's effort. "We've broken the wall of silence," he says, "but it was also about telling people inside Libya that they are not alone.
"These are people in physical danger, and there is fear in their voices. The people fighting are like you and me - they have probably never held a gun in their life. It says a lot about their bravery."
So can he allow himself to be optimistic about Libya's future? (Much, it should be noted, has happened in the few weeks since Matar answered this question.)
"I don't think Qaddafi can stamp out what is happening," he says. "The movement is spread so widely, it has no leader; it is across all of society.
"Also, the old fear had died. Yes, there is fear of the violence that is happening now. But that old, more sinister fear of the dictatorship itself has gone. It just feels as though people know that however many guns Qaddafi points at them, it is finished. Of course, I have my doubts. But I am optimistic."
It should come as no surprise that Matar remains level-headed in the midst of such tumult. After all, despite adversity he has made for himself a life of industry and acclaim. Matar was 20 years old and a student in London when his father was kidnapped; he was an architect before writing his first novel, 2006's In the Country of Men, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. That novel dealt with the disappearance of a father, as does Anatomy of a Disappearance. In this latest work we follow the childhood and adolescence of Nouri, a Libyan boy whose father, a former government minister, disappears, leaving Nouri and his stepmother Mona to discover the truth.
The parallel with Matar's own life is clear, and his fiction is often labelled "autobiographical".
"I just don't think about my fiction in that way," counters Matar. "The motor of fiction is the imagination, and though there are clearly things in my imagination that are linked to my reality, when I sit down to write I'm not interested in recording events in my life in the way some people suggest.
"I'm interested in exploring the things that obsess me. In this book, I was obsessed by the question of whether it's ever possible to really know your father. That incredibly intimate, familiar, yet mysterious figure. I had this feeling for Nouri - I could sense his presence and I wanted to know more about it."
If there is a connection between his own life and his fiction, says Matar, it runs deeper.
"I've lived so long in this space between grief and hope," he says. "And I think that this is what all fiction does - all fiction is about that suspension, about being in space that is not final, that is unresolved."
In this space between grief and hope: it's a phrase Matar uses repeatedly to describe his family's circumstances. Last year, Matar's family heard from a former prisoner at Abu Salim who said he'd seen Jaballa alive in 2002, placing him outside the notorious 1996 massacre at that prison in which 1,200 political prisoners were killed. So have recent events brought more news?
"We've heard nothing new," Matar says quickly. "But the situation now in Libya will, I hope, help us to find out what happened to my father. If and when this revolution is complete, I will go and look for him. We have this sighting from 2002, but that is just one sighting. So we are hopeful, but very worried."
But how does he manage - has he managed, over the years - to live with what seems an unimaginably painful situation? How can he ever think about anything other than his father, his possible whereabouts, whether he is alive or dead? How can he write?
"When your father dies, that is a kind of end. But when your father disappears, you know he is in the same reality as you, the same week and month, the same moon and sky. That is an infuriatingly painful thing to live with.
"There are stages you go through in response to a catastrophe like this," he says. "There have been times when I found it completely unbearable; my early 20s was a time of great anger, and hatred towards those who have done this.
"It took about a decade to realise that those feelings are pointless; they do nothing, they ask you to build nothing. I came to see that everyone in this situation has been damaged; that stealing someone in the night and taking him away from his family diminishes you, in fact it damages that perpetrator more than the victim."
But surely when he sees the television images of Qadaffi, he still feels hatred?
"I feel disturbed by what he is prepared to do, and, although I don't know how to say this without it sounding bizarre, I feel pity. I pity the torturer more than the tortured; and I count myself among the tortured.
"For a long time I've believed that the true punishment faced by a tyrant, his true hell, is his life. Look at Qadaffi and his sons, the madness of their own discourse, and imagine living with that all the time, inside your own head."
And here it feels as though Matar is finding his way towards something, the product of three decades of the hardest kind of ethical reflection.
"I pity the torturer, not in some haughty way, but in a way that acknowledges that any of us might have been torturers, had our circumstances been different. It was outrageous good fortune to be the son of my father, to receive the love and kindness and opportunities I had. Can I say there is something intrinsic within me that means I could never have been a torturer? No, I can't say that. So I pity the one who tortures because it must be tortuous to live with that."
Published: April 25, 2011 04:00 AM