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Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Return

"The country that separates fathers and sons has disoriented many travelers. It is very easy to get lost here. Telemachus, Edgar, Hamlet, and countless other sons, their private dramas ticking away in the silent hours, have sailed so far out into the uncertain distance between past and present that they seem adrift." So writes Hisham Matar in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between. It is a wonderful, touching, and life-affirming work.

Matar, though born in New York City (which he takes some pride in claiming as the city of his birth), is a Libyan. His father, Jaballa, a diplomat, was a fierce resistor to the coup of Muammar Qaddafi, and was imprisoned. The family, to this day, does not know if he is alive or dead, of if he is dead, when it happened.

As one might imagine, this haunts Matar: "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. I suspect many men who have buried their fathers feel the same. I am no different. I live, as we all live, in the aftermath."

The Return is framed around Matar coming back to Libya after many years. He is a novelist and professor living mostly in London, but after the overthrow of Qaddafi he decides to come back, and see many of his family, including an uncle who was also imprisoned. Through this narrative he weaves a few other stories, notably his steadfast attempt to find out what happened to his father, including dealing with Qaddafi's son, Saif Al-Islam.

What I liked most about The Return, in addition to Matar's skill with prose, it that it puts you in the man's shoes. My father is alive and I have had no cause to leave the United States (not yet), but after reading this book I feel like I know what it is like. It also takes interesting tangents--at some points, Matar becomes a travel writer, and is so caught up in the beauty of Benghazi (a city that has become notorious) that he thinks about moving there (he does have an American wife, and her reaction to this is not recorded).

For liberal arts majors, Matar also expertly weaves the Western canon into his experience. As noted above, this mostly has to with Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, who for years did not know where his father was or whether he was alive (at least Telemachus had the satisfaction of seeing Odysseus again, and helping him slaughter his mother's suitors). He also has an interesting way of exploring art. Living in London, he visited the National Gallery every day (it's free) and spending about fifteen minutes in front of a painting. One of those he discusses (it's on the cover) is The Execution of Maximillian, by Manet, and wonders if his father was similarly dispatched.

I like to read read award-winning books for two reasons. One, they are usually good, although the Pulitzer and National Book Awards sometimes choose books I can't get through, and secondly, they compel to read books I would have otherwise never read. It helps me get over my ethnocentrism, and read about places like Libya. I'm glad I read this book.

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