Friday, May 13, 2011
Book Review: Anatomy of a Disappearance, by Hisham Matar
First, apologies to Bronwyn at Penguin Canada for Blogger having buggered up her blog tour for this book (try saying that three times fast). This review should have been posted yesterday.
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar
This is a curious, spare book. Nuri is a young boy raised in Cairo; his parents are loving, but his mother is profoundly depressed and his father, an "ex-minister and leading dissident" of a place referred to only as "our country", is somewhat remote. When Nuri's mother dies, he feels like he becomes "a series of tasks" to his father, although he is still cared for solicitously by Naimi, a servant with close ties to the family. There are frequent visits from his father's friends from their country, who hint at his father's turbulent and exciting past.
Nuri and his father are vacationing in Alexandria when they meet Mona, who enchants them both. She marries Nuri's father, who is fifteen years her senior, but seems torn between the security of her older husband and Nuri's youthful adoration and burgeoning sexuality. She torments Nuri by acting coquettish and teasing and then implying that he is the one who has traversed boundaries.
Nuri is sent to boarding school in England where he feels even more alienated; he befriends his roommate but wonders how "a happy German boy with happy parents" can understand anything about his own life. Then his father is abducted from the apartment of a Swiss woman while the family is on vacation, and the remainder of the book revolves around the bewildering bureaucracy Mona and Nuri must navigate to unravel the mystery of his father's disappearance and their increasingly strained relationship.
The writing is beautiful, although I felt somewhat held at a distance from events, even when the events were tragic or involved the all-consuming, ungovernable passions of young Nuri, who describes Mona's body in loving, yearning detail. The entire story seems based on absence, the absence of safety and stability - for Nuri with his loving but unknowable parents, and for Nuri's father in the absence of a safe and welcoming homeland; it is as if events in his birthplace have conspired to erase his past, while leaving his son unable to move into the future. Apparently there are autobiographical elements in this book (although Matar maintains it is not autobiographical), as Matar's own father was abducted to Cairo and taken back to Libya 20 years ago, and his fate is still unknown. Matar has said that when the Libyan revolution is "complete" he will return there to search for his father. Perhaps this book, so affectingly permeated with loss and yearning, is part of his search.