Hisham Matar’s ‘The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between’

April 23, 2017
Cover of Hisham Matar’s “The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between”.

Hisham Matar was awarded a Pulitzer Prize this year for his autobiography, “The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between,” a Libyan story of hope spanning 22 years.
When he was 19 and living in London, Matar’s father, an op­ponent of the Libyan government, was kidnapped and put in prison. Matar never heard from his father again but spent much of his adult life hopeful he was still alive. Twenty-two years later, after dicta­tor Muammar Qaddafi was toppled and many prisoners in Libya were freed, there was no word about the missing father. Matar returned to Libya to search himself.
In the first four chapters of the book Matar’s descriptive writing shines. He explained his longing for home and the pain of missing his father through simple but vivid imagery. He also quotes other writers and artists throughout the book.
The first chapter focuses on the decision to leave one’s homeland. “Joseph Brodsky was right. So were Nabokov and Conrad. They were artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country,” Matar wrote. “What you have left behind has dissolved. Return and you will face the absence or the deface­ment of what you treasured.”
But Matar also says Dmitri Shostakovich, Boris Pasternak and Naguib Mahfouz were right. “[N]ever leave the homeland. Leave and your connections to the source will be severed. You will be like a dead trunk, hard and hol­low,” Matar wrote.
He felt uneasy about his home in New York, a place he knew offered more opportunities than Libya but meant nothing to him. “I had always regarded Manhattan the way an orphan might think of a mother who had laid him on the doorstep of a mosque: It meant nothing to me but also everything. It represented, in moments of des­peration, the possibility of finally cheating myself out of exile,” he wrote.
Objects around him constantly reminded him of what he thought his father was experiencing in prison. He wrote: “I crossed over a grille in the sidewalk. Beneath it, there was a room, barely high enough for a man to stand and certainly not wide enough for him to lie down. A deep grey box in the ground. I had no idea what it was for. Without knowing how it happened, I found myself on my knees, looking in. No matter how hard I tried, I could not find a trap­door, a pipe, anything leading out. It came over me suddenly. I wept and could hear myself.”
In the second chapter, Matar spoke of the new identity he assumed because his father has become one of the most notable leaders of the opposition. In the beginning, it was surprisingly easy and he enjoyed pretending. Later, it affected his relationships and friendships.
He met a Libyan boy called Hamza in school in England whose father worked for the Lib­yan government. They became friends instantly. Matar later revealed his real identity. Re­gardless, Hamza still embraced him but they both knew they could never stay friends.
Matar said he missed every­thing Arabic: The language, gestures, social code and music. He said: “On the plane from London to Cairo, I understood the logic of these contradictions; they were informed not by London but by the condi­tion of waiting. It turns out that I have spent all the time since I was eight years old, when my family left Libya, waiting.”
The security his father gave him is shown in the last paragraph of chapter three: “That day in June, in southern France, I swam out alone into the same Mediterranean Sea. For some reason, I remem­bered, more vividly than ever be­fore, that it was my father who had taught me how to swim: Holding me up, one open hand against my belly, saying: ‘That’s it.’ I did not fear the sea until he was gone.”
The rest of the book details how Matar’s search turns into an obsession, affecting him physi­cally, mentally and emotionally. He closes himself off from social gatherings and describes a desperate search for his father while carrying around a fear of what he might find.
He finally finds peace with never knowing what happened to his father by concluding: “My father is both dead and alive. I do not have a grammar for him. He is in the past, present and future. Even if I had held his hand and felt it slacken, as he exhaled his last breath, I would still, I believe, every time I refer to him, pause to search for the right tense.”
“In the Country of Men,” Matar’s first novel, won six international literary awards and was translated into 28 languages. “Anatomy of a Disappearance,” his second novel, was named one of the best books for 2011 by the Guardian and the Chicago Tribune.