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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


A review in The Statesman about Hisham Matar's 'In The Country of Men' had this to say: "Who would publish a book about the troubles of a Libyan child when, in the eyes of the western media, the whole country is reduced to the delusions of Gaddafi."

Obviously, Viking wasn't taking this too seriously because they did and the book has emerged as one of the hottest reads this year. In the book trade, it is being referred to as the 'Libyan Kite Runner.' The parallels between Khaled Hosseini's and Matar's accounts are hard to miss. Love, loss, longing, betrayal, politics and conflicts cross paths more than once.

Like 'The Kite Runner' this is a book that plays in your head, long after you have flipped the last page. But never before have tales of personal and collective betrayal been so finely narrated. The story is told by Suleiman, a 24-year-old Libyan in exile in Egypt.

Through his eyes you are drawn back to the troubled events that unfolded in Tripoli in the summer of 1979. It was a time of protests of all sorts - political, student with dissent spilling on the streets.

Suleiman shares his life with his unhappy mother while his father travels around the world to keep his business going. That is what he believes till he comes across his father at the city square. Then the secret police comes after them and the narrator later learns his father is part of a network of underground liberals.

On the one hand, he has deal with his mother's illness, something that revolves around drinking something she buys secretly from the baker. Though not once, does Suleiman's love for his mother falter and Matar pens it evocatively:

"Although her urgent stories tormented me, my vigil and what I then could only explain as her illness bound us into an intimacy that since occupied the innermost memory I have of love. If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love."

With prose like that, what's not to like about 'The Country of Men.'

There are times when fiction seems to mirror fact. Among other things there are brutal executions, killings, unanswered questions, disappearances and friendships lost.

The descriptions are chilling and while the author maintains that the main events are fictional, some of the gnawing details make it seem all too real. Fact is Matar's family was forced to flee Tripoli for Cairo in 1979 due to his diplomat father's politics. That's just one of the many reasons you would want to treasure this debut that took Matar five long years to finish.

BOOK INFO: 256 pages. July 2006. Publisher: Viking.