The oedipal drama in the novel is obvious, but smarter than such things sometimes are. The worst way to do an oedipal drama would be to make it an underdetermined and elementary fundamental of human sexuality, the way a certain reading of Freud might lead you to anticipate. Totally independent of whether such a theory of human sexuality were true, it would be bad fiction to make a terribly interesting and consequential neurosis something that a nine year old child has just because… he’s a nine year old child. Hisham Matar does not do this.
Just so we’re clear, I mean stuff like this:
“There was no reason why, I thought, we shouldn’t sleep like this every night, she and I together in her bed….A good solution, I thought, was to have Baba sleep in my room and, because neither Mama nor I snored, we could have the big bed all to ourselves.” (85)
Suleiman loves his father, but his problem is that he’s pulled into an ignorant complicity with his mother’s unhappiness. She was a child-bride, essentially raped on her wedding night, and she’s not only carried a great deal of pain from that into her adult life (and into a marriage which is, of course, an extension of that event) but she periodically makes her son privy to that pain.
The way this happens is key: when she drinks — always at night, when the sun is down — she tells him a variety of secrets and truths that he will not be allowed to know during the day, when she is sober. “Children aren’t supposed to know these things,” she complains; “I wish I hadn’t told you. I wish I had never told you anything.” Her drinking and truth-telling becomes, in the light of day, an “illness,” just like the fact that she and her husband sleep in separate beds (except when they’re having very plainly un-mutual sex) becomes, in the light of day, accounted to the fact of his “snoring,” which even the nine year old Suleiman recognizes to be an excuse. This dissonance — between what he has learned at night and what he can be allowed to know in the daytime — is a powerful problem for him.
He resolves it, then, by retreating from night-time truths he can’t process into day-time truths: if the problem is simply snoring, then a pragmatic solution suggests itself. He knows that it’s not about “snoring,” of course; he knows that she is unhappy in bed with her husband because he walked in on them one night and saw her being very unhappy while her husband was having sex with her. And Suleiman knows that he is supposed to rescue her from him and supplant his own father because she tells him that he is supposed to do this. Her dilemma is that she hates being a wife, but loves being a mother. And his dilemma, then, is that she tells him about it, describing how she tried to abort him and how happy she is, now, that she failed, and then directly anticipating that he will carry her away:
“You are my prince. One day, you’ll be a man and take me away on your white horse…” (12)
Obviously, this is not a simple charge for him to accept, and not simply it pushes him closer and closer to needing to choose between parents. And the choice this seems to force on him would be between allegiance to the victim of masculine sexuality — his initial tendency, because he’s so much more emotionally close to his mother — and the public purveyors of it, both the broader society that demanded she be married off to a stranger at age fourteen (because she had coffee in public with a boy) and those who would (and do) condemn her for drinking alcohol. Her night-time truths are, for her son, obviously and unambiguously forbidden in day-time, even by her.
And this is why the choice between father and mother is no choice at all: he is male, and no alternate mode of being masculine is presented to him as possible, precisely because he is so completely shielded from knowledge about the wider world. For him, manhood is only one thing — a world of sanctioned rape and a public scrutiny of women by men which he has no choice but to render as her own fault. Note the moment on page three when random men playing dominoes in a café are checking Mama out and he wonders “if her dress shouldn’t be looser”: the option of them not staring at her is unavailable to him and all he can imagine — the only form of behavior he knows — is for her to take on the burden of their lust, and the responsibility and guilt for it. And so, he is presented with a single option: to join the “Country of Men,” both by his mother’s demand that he take his father’s place and carry her away, and his father’s “Take care of your mother, you are the man of the house now” on page five. He can only save his mother from violence by becoming the violator, something he has neither the desire nor the ability to do. He is a boy, but being interpellated into the country of men…