Life catching up with art

It was purely coincidental, but I happened to have just started reading Hisham Matar's Booker prize nominated In the Country of Men on the day that I heard that Colonel Gaddafi was dead. In the country of men is a chilling tale of life under Gaddafi's rule, made all the more chilling by the narrative voice, that of a nine year old boy.

Suleiman, the narrator, grows up in Tripoli with his alcoholic mother and his would-be dissident father. It soon becomes clear that his mother's drinking problem is largely down to fear, she becomes obsessed with his father's safety, and by extension Suleiman's. Suleiman's friends' parents follow different paths, his best friend's father is a prominent dissident, who is executed publicly for his involvement in a student protest movement (which by Western standards is a very restrained and polite protest), while the father of another of his friends is a member of Gaddafi's shady security forces.

Suleiman's father is tortured by the secret police, and there is the implication that he has betrayed many of his fellow dissidents under duress. Suleiman meanwhile has distanced himself from his best friend mirroring at a child's level the betrayal of his father. Years later exiled to Egypt Suleiman looks back on his childhood, and tries to come to terms with life lived under a brutal regime.

Whatever you may think of the circumstances surrounding Gaddafi's death, after reading this novel it's hard not to feel grateful that the world is now one evil dictator the less. In the country of men is truly chilling - a regime which televises executions, turns children against their parents, and encourages the natural paranoia that most humans have and allows it to run rampant. What I think I will most remember about this novel is fear, fear runs throughout, there is no trust, and betrayal is potentially everywhere. It must have been a sickening regime to live under, I just hope that now the Libyan people can have the country they want, and no longer have to live in a country of mad men.

On a more prosaic note In the country of men completes the African leg of the 666 Challenge.


Aarti said…
I heard about this book on NPR, I think. Or it may have been another book because the one I recall, the father was taken away and disappeared and the son grew up without a father. Both stories sound so chilling. What a fantastic review of a book that is sure to be used for historical context in coming years and generations.
Book-hound said…
Thanks for the kind comments Aarti, not sure whether you've got the same book or not, but they do sound very similar. Suleiman largely grows up fatherless in "In the country of men" initially because of his father's dissident activities and later because he's exiled from both his country and, by implication, his family.
Was listening to Radio 4 this morning, and they were interviewing a boy of a similar age to the fictional Suleiman, and it was wonderful to hear his positive thoughts on the future.

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