Sabahat Chaudhary

This March's Libyan spring revealed to the Libyan people and the world the falsity of the regime that Qaddafi had worked hard to hide. Some, whose loved ones had long been disappeared for dissenting against Qaddafi, hoped that it would also provide discovery of their loved ones -- at best, reunion; at the least, a sense of closure.

For some, the answers were found, for others their loved one's fate, like the outcome of the Libyan uprising, remains uncertain. The author Hisham Matar, the son of a Libyan dissident kidnapped over twenty years ago by Qaddafi’s secret police and not seen since, is one of those in the second category. Matar borrows from his personal tragedy in Anatomy of a Disappearance, his spare and elegant elegy of a second novel.

This song of longing and sorrow is sung by a son, Nuri, grieving for a similarly disappeared father. Nuri is a young man just at the door of manhood, still bereft from the mysterious death of his mother, when he suffers the disappearance of his father, an act that is expected from the first few pages. Nuri's father is a complex and closed man, “intimately mysterious even when [] present,” for whom Nuri's longing is not satiated even in his presence.

One of the many mysteries of Nuri's father's is his political advocacy -- though Matar's novel is about the risks of political dissent (the presumed cause of his exile from his home country and his disappearance), only slight and vague mention is made of political ideology in these pages. Not the sort to groom his son in his image, little mention is made by Nuri's father of his work to Nuri. Rather Nuri, and the reader in turn, is only given a hint of Nuri's father's steadfast belief in a constitutional monarchy, and that more than a third of the way through the book. However, this does not make the novel less complete, rather it clarifies that the true focus is on Nuri's personal grieving.

As two people longing to understand each other but separated by tragedy of loss and the trait of shyness, Nuri and his father relate to each other through something outside both of them – Mona of the “inconstant eyes.” The opening of the novel and much of it is spent in contemplation of this apparent distraction of an alluring young woman clad in an "outrageously bright yellow" bathing suit when Nuri first comes upon her. At this first sighting, Nuri notices that Mona had "the allure of those who, like my father, seemed to live their lives in secret." Nuri and his father soon discover that Mona is poignantly equidistant in age between the young Nuri and his widowed father, and the same age as Nuri's deceased mother when she met his father.  She soon enchants them both.  Like any prize between two men, Mona begins as an object of competition, but in time becomes a conduit of communication, however uneasy, between father and son, as well as an object of confusion for the young motherless Nuri. 

Like the political beliefs of Nuri's father, much else is left unsaid in Matar’s novel, making the words chosen much weightier and leaving more of an impression. Nuri remembers his late mother’s fondness for cold places and how he “stiffened at the sight of deep, hollow chasms emptied out of the rocky earth” in the Swiss Alps. An otherwise reserved father “ordered a large steak that bled each time he dug his knife into its thick flesh.” As a result, the strong and mysterious figures of these images leave Nuri a singular person, whose worldview when grieving for his recently lost father is that "the world had been sliced into hours to fill; otherwise you could go mad with loneliness."  

Like the story of Matar’s father, his novel by end feels unresolved. We find Nuri has just crossed the threshold of manhood, but is still on the journey toward understanding the mystery of his father. Perhaps that is the nature of this type of loss, but it is also what makes Matar’s novel so current, at a time when so much in Libya, like much of the Arab world, remains uncertain. 

Sabahat Chaudhary is a Pakistani-American lawyer living in Washington, D.C. Though a life long reader and sharer of opinions about books, this is her first book review.