THE RETURN: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, by Hisham Matar. Random House, 243 pp., $26.
“I am reluctant to give Libya any more than it has already taken,” writes Hisham Matar early in his memoir, as he prepares to board a flight to the country he has not seen in 33 years — since he was eight years old. What Libya has taken, among other things, is his father, Jaballa Matar, a former military officer and successful businessman who was one of Qaddafi’s most prominent opponents. A father’s disappearance and a son’s anxious longing were also the subject of Matar’s novels, “In the Country of Men” (2007) and “Anatomy of a Disappearance” (2011). But in “The Return,” without the anesthetic of fiction, these themes gain a new power, rooted (paradoxically) in how little information Matar has about the nonfiction version of events — the truth of what happened to his father.
Jaballa Matar was most likely killed in 1996, his sixth year of imprisonment at Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim prison, during a massacre that took 1,270 lives. But it could have been at any point that year or the next year, or even 15 years later. The author and his brother, Ziad, spend all those years trying to gather any scrap of information they can, at one point even hiring a forensic artist to project how their father might look after years of aging in harsh conditions. Matar, based in Britain, tracks down every former inmate who is said to have so much as glimpsed his father in the prison yard; he has countless (usually fruitless) meetings with such men, even flying all the way to Oklahoma to speak with one.
In the book’s later chapters, a suspenseful pursuit takes shape involving high-level British efforts, beginning in 2010, to coerce Libyan officials to reveal what happened to Jaballa Matar.
But for the most part the author’s quest, in these pages, is quiet and internal — and no less compelling for it. “My father is both dead and alive,” Matar writes. “I do not have a grammar for him. He is in the past, present, and future.” The unbearable weight of not knowing is this book’s true subject. `
As for Matar’s titular return to Libya, it takes place in the brief, hopeful window of early 2012, when Qaddafi was finally gone and the country had not yet sunk into the instability and violence that would consume it again just months later. In one memorable scene, Matar is coerced by friends to give a reading at a library in Benghazi. The space appears devoid of books, even its card catalogs empty. (Matar’s own books were banned in the Qaddafi years.) Yet the room overflows with the gratitude of a large audience come to see the returning author, and for his revered father, a man known not only for his ideological integrity but for reciting poetry during the darkest prison nights.
One comes away from this beautiful book feeling a sense of loss for the Libya that Matar and his father, brother, mother, uncles and cousins all fought for or dreamed of. They held on to some part of this Libya even as they lived under unthinkable levels of surveillance, tracked for decades by Qaddafi’s men throughout every corner of the world.
The effect of the family’s attachments is less sentimental than defiant. And although the author does not want to give Libya anything more, he has, in this profound work of witnessing and grief, given it something indeed: a testimony that, even if shaped by the brutal state, has not ultimately been erased by it. “The Return,” for all the questions it cannot answer, leaves a deep emotional imprint.