In the Country of Men, part one

As I did for Tarzan last year, I’m going to do a multi-part series of posts on Hisham Matar’s marvelous first novel, In the Country of Men. This is the first one (parts twothreefour, and five), which I hope will give you a start on reading the novel — if you want to follow along — and which gives away only a little by dealing only with the book’s very beginning. Note, though, that I am not going to protect you from spoilers or anything like that; it’s a short novel, and an amazing one, so if you want not to be “spoiled,” pick up a copy! 

If you know from the start that the sun in some way represents Gaddafi’s rule over Libya, the first lines of In the Country of Men will make a different kind of sense:

It was 1979, and the sun was everywhere. Tripoli lay brilliant and still beneath it. Every person, animal and ant went in desperate search for shade, those occasional grey patches of mercy carved into the white of everything. But true mercy only arrived at night, a breeze chilled by the vacant desert, moistened by the humming sea, a reluctant guest silently passing through the empty streets, vague about how far it was allowed to roam in this realm of the absolute star.

These lines are not quite suitable for the nine-year old protagonist whose first person governs the narrative, of course, and the delicacy of the language bugged me for that reason when I first read it. But the very first line of the novel — “I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away” — clarifies the matter: the book is written in the voice of the fully grown Libyan exile who (we eventually learn) is telling us this story of his younger self and his younger perceptions from Cairo, in a “now” which is a full fifteen years later. And just as it is his mind that produces that delightful metaphor of “shade” as a “patch of mercy carved into the white of everything,” it is also through his mind that we understand the peculiar way in which that metaphor and this novel are about Muamar Gaddafi and the realm which is everywhere ruled by his absolute star. A nine-year old child does not know this, but will this will prove to be precisely the point.

The first time you read this novel, you, too, will likely not notice what is happening here. Certainly you will not understand the gravity of it, or the menace in that sun. And a few pages later, you when you read the description of Baba’s sunglasses, the way the narrator describes his younger self’s indignation will signify more or less the way they signify to nine-year old Suleiman himself:

Two dark lenses curved like the humpbacks of turtles over his eyes. The sky, the sun and the sea were painted by God in colours we could all point at and say the sea is turquoise, the sun banana, the sky blue. Sunglasses are terrible, I thought, because they change all of this and keep those who wear them at a distance.

If the humpback metaphor is that of the 24 year old exile in Cairo, the indignation is the child’s at a father whose distance and refusal of intimacy (not to mention a kind of Oedipal culpability) will fester and burn under the blazing glare of Tripoli’s absolute star. To the child, sunglasses are just part and parcel of the thing that makes his father a gnawing and agonizing enigma.

But the fact that Suleiman’s father is trying to shield his eyes from the light will take on more meaning as the novel unfolds, as will the apparently throwaway fact that the cows which he has imported from Scotland are bothered by the scorching North African sun. “Where they are from the sun has no heat and barely any light,” his father’s closest friend declares, as they moo in wordless lamentation. And just moments before the narrator recalls watching the televised interrogation of an accused “bourgeois and a traitor,” it is important to note that the neighbor who complains about the cows — an odious woman, who the neighbor’s mother dislikes from the start — is married to a man who is “an Antenna,  a man of the Mokhabarat,” a person who the young boy recalls, is “‘able to put people behind the sun,’ as I had heard it said many times…”