This is my second post on Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men (parts one, three, four, and five) and it’s incomplete in a bunch of ways (which is sort of appropriate, actually); as I said in the intro to that first post, this is going to be an ongoing series, more or less a public scratch pad, as I try to work through what makes this novel tick. While these aren’t finished pieces of writing, though, I hope that anyone who has read the novel will find some illumination in them, while anyone who hasn’t read it will get a bit of my sense of why I think they should.
The protagonist of In the Country of Men is a thoroughly unmade character. By this, I mean several things. One is that Suleiman is nine years old, lost in the uncanny valley between childhood and adolescence, both recognizably neither and unrecognizable even to himself. In this, perhaps, he is simply a nine year old child, this book is simply a bildungsroman, and his dilemma might be close enough to a simply “universal” experience that we might take the oedipal complexities of his psyche as indexing something true about that age, anywhere and anytime. To be nine, we might say, is simply to be no longer even as you are also not yet.
Suleiman is certainly unmade in both of these “universal” ways. No longer a child, he has learned both that things can change and that they will, and so he is obsessively anxious and fearful about the future. At the same time, he is a not-yet-an-adult who finds that he cannot live in the world he nevertheless has to fret about, anxiously and incoherently describing what he sees without the ability (or socially sanctioned right) to process, understand, or knowingly act. He discovers adult truths, in short, but it is not allowed to be adult enough to deal with them.
But this is a limited reading. The deeper we look inside him — if “inside” and “outside” are the right terms — the clearer it becomes that his inner life also reflects the violent unmadeness of an outer world with which he is coming into increasingly intimate knowledge, but which was already there all along. In other words, the more we might look at his psyche, and seek to apply a generalizing psychological vocabulary, the more we will find him dealing with the particular set of problems that produce him as such, the specific problem of living in a specific time and place and trying to make sense of what he increasingly, as he matures, comes to perceive. If he is not-yet and no-longer because of an age he has in common with all nine year olds, then, it is also the un-generalizably specific fact of growing up in Gaddafi’s Libya that unmakes him as the particular kind of unmade nine year old he is. To say the same thing yet again: it is the chaos of that context that defines the problem he has as an adolescent in trying to make himself, both the truth he must deal with and the systems of silencing and repression that prevent him from doing so.
For this reason, when J. M. Coetzee called In the Country of Men “[a] poignant story of a child exposed too early to the brutalities of Libyan politics,” I don’t think he was wrong, but I don’t think he was very right either. There is no “too early” for Suleiman, because such a temporality would make “childhood” into a kind of shelter from the outside, and if there’s one thing this novel works hard to establish, it’s that there is no shelter from violence in Gaddafi’s Libya. The omnipresence of the “sun” is the most important staging metaphor, I think, and just as the sun itself is, it always precedes the forms of life which only thereafter come to reflect upon it.
More on that soon. For now, I just want to make the point that to think the novel through the kind of “domestic space” vs. “public political” distinction that we so often use — by which “public” and “private” are known through that antinomy — would make it hard to grasp the public intimacy of violence with which Suleiman is struggling to come to grips, the work he has to do to make sense of a violence that is itself the precondition for the psyche that he now employs to make sense of it.
This is a programmatic problem in the novel, I think, but a good example is Suleiman’s worries about his parents’ marriage, the event that brought him into being. And well he should worry! There is a vertiginous disconnect between what he is supposed to know — the basically happy and “normal” seeming domestic household that his father wants him to see — and the stories his mother occasionally tells him when he is away, and she takes to drinking her “medicine” and describes for him how she was forced to marry Suleiman’s father, and how he raped her. As Suleiman remembers:
“The only things that mattered were in the past. And what mattered the most in the past was how she and Baba came to be married, that ‘black day’ as she called it. She never started the story from the beginning; like Scheherezade she didn’t move in a straight line but jumped from one episode to another, leaving questions unanswered, questions the asking of which I feared would interrupt her telling. I had to restrain myself try to remember every piece of the story in the hope that one day I could fit it all into a narrative that was straight and clear and simple. For though I feared those nights when we were alone and she was ill, I never wanted her to stop talking. Her story was mine too, it bound us, turned us into one, “Two halves of the same soul, two open pages of the same book,’ as she used to say.”
Putting aside the Scheherezade reference; the key point is that on nights when Baba is away, Mama drinks from a bottle that Suleiman knows as her “medicine,” and so he knows these nights to be nights of illness: a healthy world is suddenly revealed to be a sick one, in the dark (again, note the darkness/light dyad, which illuminates the “black day” trope). But this is also a secret that Suleiman must keep from his father: along with hiding the illness itself, her drinking causes her to tell him the kind of story which he could never admit knowing to his father, the stories that make of them a conspiracy of two against the villain in the story, his father. Which means, then, that as a happy domestic normality resumes on Baba‘s return, Suleiman’s silence is complicit in hiding the violence beneath.
More on complicity in a later post too (every point I try to make begs for an elaboration longer than this blog post will allow!). But the violent story of Suleiman’s origin is painfully simple enough to relate in a few words: Mama’s older brother caught her playing with a boy — she was fourteen and innocent — and a council of uncles, brothers, and father condemned her to be married, instantly, “as if I was pregnant and had to be married off before it showed.” As she describes her wedding night to Suleiman, her tongue loosened by illicit grappa:
“Your father, the mystery groom, was twenty-three; to the fourteen year old girl I was that seemed ancient. When he finally walked in, I fainted. When I came to, he wasn’t there. Your grandfather was beside me, smiling, your grandmother behind him, clutching the now bloodstained handkerchief to her chest and crying with happiness.”
Before we even get to Gaddafi, this is the unsolvable problem Suleiman is faced with, the originary violence that made him, and which splits him. Does he identify with his mother, the victim, and regret the event that brought him into being? Or does he identify with his father, the innocent aggressor, and take his place in the country of men? The fact that he cannot do both — and yet he cannot do either — unmakes him as he struggles to know more about himself and his place, a knowledge that only further unsettles him as he learns more, like a water that only makes you thirstier as you drink…