‘The Return’ by Hisham Matar — Book Review

Winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography

Is there a fate worse than the death of a loved one? By the end of Hisham Matar’s lyrical memoir ‘The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between’ — which chronicles the disappearance of his father Jaballa by Muammar Qaddafi’s tyrannical regime in Libya — the reader is left digesting a question which permeates the book. ‘The Return’ offers a harrowing yet beautiful insight into the purgatory this lack of certainty rendered in the heart and mind of the author. Matar observes that “when a father is neither dead nor alive, when he is a ghost, the will is impotent”. His obsessive search for answers to his father’s whereabouts leave him in a state of limbo, both physically and psychologically, as his self-identity is put on indefinite hold. The abyss of his father’s disappearance hangs over his family — we learn that Jaballa Matar was taken to Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, known as ‘The Last Stop’ — but simultaneously provides the reader with the basis for a fascinating exposition into the political and social consequences of the Qaddafi regime on the state of Libya and its people.

An architect by trade, Matar attempts to construct a framework of meaning to rationalise the consequences such injustice had on his life. Even whilst attending school in England as a teenager he refused to adopt native mannerisms or the local dialect and his “bloody-minded commitment to rootlessness” defines his life in the same way his father’s disappearance defines this book. The back and forth of the chapters — the transience of time and place — perhaps reflects the author’s inner monologue that such uncertainty and personal chaos bestows on the mind. His father’s disappearance pitted a nation against the intimate reality of a family, one where “the once balanced structure of the four columns was now in perpetual strain”.

The book opens with Matar about to return to his native homeland for the first time in almost 30 years. We learn that he had avoided returning for so long because he was “reluctant to give Libya any more than it had already taken”. He views himself rather pitifully when comparing his situation to that of the Russian Andrei Bersyenev in On the Eve, a sentiment possibly borne by the ‘survivor’s guilt’ he bore while his father, uncle and two cousins languished in the hell-hole of Abu Salim. “Guilt is an exile’s eternal companion. It stains every departure”.

The book — albeit a wonderful tribute to a renowned man, who at times seemed to have been deified by those he left behind — also appears to be the author’s attempt at bridging the chasm between his life before and his life after his father’s disappearance in 1989. Matar sees an analogy between the prison his father was confined to and the mental imprisonment his psyche occupied from that moment onwards. The stories relayed of his father in prison mirror that of Victor Frankl’s iconic ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. In spite of the physical and mental torture inflicted, the author’s uncle and two cousins survived their ordeal through their insistence on retaining a place within their souls that could not be broken or taken by the prison guards.

The decades long struggle for truth, a quest which made it as far as the corridors of Westminster, burns a realism into Matar’s writing that is understandable, a pragmatism borne by false hopes and dead-end clues; these are most evident in Matar’s often bizarre and infuriating interactions with Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam. Some things are better left unsaid, or not known. Matar feared that the truth may render him “forever undone”. This Sisyphean battle for his own existence is brought into stark reality when Matar alludes to irrational thoughts that once led him to consider ending his own life on a bridge in Paris, acknowledging “a presence implanted in me, one that knows better than anyone, perhaps even better than myself, that I am closer to the precipice than I can conceive”.

Yet the ambiguous conclusion of the book suggests that the author has succeeded in his quest in writing this memoir: an acceptance that those who robbed him of his father would no longer enjoy the leverage his grief imposed. Although earlier in the book Matar envies “the finality of funerals… I covet the certainty” later on he poignantly observes, having intellectualised his reality, the absurdity of marking a single date on the calendar as the end of a human life, given “the complexities of being, the mechanics of our anatomy, the intelligence of our biology and the endless firmament of our insecurity”.

The author (left) with his uncle Mahmoud, a political prisoner for twenty–one years. (Photo source: The New Yorker)

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