In the Country of Men
Hisham Matar

In the Country of MenIn the Country of Men is basically story about life in Libya after the colonel Muammar El Qaddafi’s revolution. The year is 1979 and the narrator is nine years old Suleiman so we see revolution and its consequences through the eyes of nine years old boy. Boy who was much protected from the truth by his parents. It was interesting how some obvious facts (obvious for us, adults) are presented in some naïve language of a kid. We have impression that we are sailing through the sea surrounded with peaks of icebergs. The difference is that we (adults) are aware what’s beneath the surface unlike the child who is telling us the story.

Then there is one nice picture about customs in the Muslim country and again position of woman in it. Suleiman’s mother has been forced into the marriage when her brother saw her in the café with mixed company. Immediately “husband hunt” begins and the Scheherazade-like story. Therefore she was very unhappy with her marriage but in the same time in the husband’s absence she’s even more miserable and becomes “ill”. Her “illness” is another peak of an iceberg and I must say I liked how Matar has described bond between mother and son making her “illness” something sacredly secret.

Suleiman’s family is relatively rich. His father is businessman often on the trip abroad but also man who is part of democratic wing in new Libya. Wing you don’t want to be part in post Revolutionary, Qaddafi’s Libya; full of secret police, man in dark suits and sunglasses, land where national TV is broadcasting public execution of “traitors of the revolution”; where phone lines are tapped, etc. And inevitably consequence for being wrong winged came. But even then it’s a peak of an iceberg.

Matar has done great job in conveying kid’s confusion toward all the events around him. Politics is absolutely incomprehensible to him; he doesn’t have a clue what his father supports or what he actually is doing in spite the fact that some glimpses have been presented accidentally to him. He is confronted with the mechanism of the regime when secret service is following their car or watching his house or taking away his friend’s father but somehow he manages to not recognize that as something bad. He’s explaining that in the most impossible ways. On the other hand his parents aren’t teaching their son anything, they are worsening situation even more and make him confused ‘till the breaking point when he start to scream (finally!):” You always lie. I am not a child and you always lie.” In the meanwhile I was so irritated with the kid and had to (too) often remind myself that he’s only a child.

But what disappointed me the most are last few chapters when we are actually see that the story tells 24 Suleiman and not nine years old boy. I’ve found myself confused why on earth he made this unnecessary contrast with the rest of the novel who has convinced us that the narrator is a boy? The whole novel was through the eyes of a kid, who is not kid anymore and therefore it completely spoils the earlier approach. Now when I know Suleiman is an adult I’d expect story from a point of view of an adult person.

The story itself is nothing new. It’s more/less the same story from a country under oppressive regime. There are only few specifically Libyan spices in this dish.
Indeed this is sad and sometimes poignant story but is that should be enough?

This is part of my Winter Reading Challenge 2008