The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between 
by Hisham Matar.
Viking, 276 pp., £14.99, June 2016, 978 0 670 92333 5
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All fathers​ are unknowable to their sons but some are more mysterious than others. The Victorian stereotype was a whiskered patriarch behind a study door, the son, barred from entry, tiptoeing past. Now the door is open, and the study has been converted to a playroom, and fathers are expected to be on hand. Even so, inaccessibility remains a dominant motif: the workaholic dad, out early and back late, available only at weekends; the divorced dad, living elsewhere, available only on alternate weekends; the abusive or alcoholic dad, available but not to be trusted; the sperm donor dad, available only since 2005, when a change in the law removed his right to anonymity; the accidental dad, heedless of the consequences of his donation, unacquainted with or unaware of his offspring. Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, the title of Germaine Greer’s memoir about her father, might serve for countless others. Even dads who are seemingly there for their children have been known to turn wilfully vague when interrogated about their past. Most enigmatic of all are the dads who die young, or when their children are young, or both: photographs preserve them, and memories (if they exist) reanimate them, but whatever’s expected of a father usually dies with them, whether it’s discipline, stimulation, wisdom, indulgence or just a palpable presence about the house.

Dad memoirs are more common than mum memoirs, or were until recently. Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son and J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself are the progenitors, and, as their titles suggest, the genre requires two protagonists, biographer co-starring with biographee. In the interests of plot and character, it helps to have a dad who was a bit (or more than a bit) of a rogue, as, variously, Greer, Ackerley, David Cornwell (a.k.a. John le Carré) and Tobias Wolff did. Ackerley’s left two letters, ‘to be read only in the case of my death’, in which he revealed his ‘secret orchard’: the mistress and three daughters he’d been hiding for many years. Ackerley’s first reaction to the duplicity was shock: ‘My relationship with my father was in ruins. I had known nothing about him at all.’ Soon enough, though, ‘I perceived that I had a good story to tell.’ He tells it generously, without rancour, and when he reflects, in an appendix, on his own sexual profligacy (‘So many boys had passed through my hands’), he doesn’t blame it on his genes.

A son’s discovery of a father’s secret life is a repeated motif in such memoirs – and often, as with Ackerley, the motive for writing them. Where the father fesses up before he dies, the shock can be mitigated. The music journalist Ted Kessler kicks off his recent anthology of filial tributes with one to his dad, Felix, who revealed his secret – a long-standing girlfriend and an eight-year-old daughter – when Ted was mature enough to take it in: ‘Everyone freaked out for a little while over the news, but in time it all worked out for the best.’* Kessler thanks his dad ‘for being such a good sport’ – and for still being around to receive the praise. It isn’t unknown for a son to pay tribute while his father is still alive – Roddy Doyle did it (to both parents) in Rory and Ita (2002) – but it’s usually death that provides the spur. All the things that went unspoken in his lifetime (‘Died before we’d done much talking’ goes the Ian Dury song ‘My Old Man’) can finally get said, now he’s no longer around to inhibit you. Whether there are scores to settle, or tears to shed, you can be candid, knowing he won’t hear. Regrets? There’ll be a few, but – as Kingsley Amis’s elegy for his father suggests – of a complex, even contradictory kind:

I’m sorry you had to die
To make me sorry
You’re not here now.

What to write if your father is neither alive nor dead, though? Hisham Matar’s father, Jaballa, a prominent opponent of the Gaddafi regime, was kidnapped in Cairo in March 1990 and taken to the Abu Salim prison in Libya. Letters smuggled out to his family describing his cell (‘a concrete box … a steel door through which no air passes’) and state of mind (‘I remain stronger than their tactics of oppression … My forehead does not know how to bow’) show that he was alive until at least 1996. Matar has spent many years trying to find out what happened after that.

The family couldn’t grieve, because they had no information, let alone a death certificate or a corpse. And despite his tireless pursuit, Matar was blocked at every turn. Not knowing where, or if, his father was living, he too was reduced to a state of limbo, a condition like that of the speaker in the opening section of The Waste Land: ‘I could not/Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/Living nor dead and I knew nothing,/Looking into the heart of light, the silence.’ On at least one occasion, in 2002, by the Pont d’Arcole in Paris, he came close to suicide. He was saved by his father’s mantra: ‘Work and survive.’ But the sense of powerlessness persisted. His father ‘has always seemed to me the quintessence of what it means to be independent’, he writes, early on in The Return, when the use of the present perfect continuous tense doesn’t sound over-optimistic. ‘This, together with his unresolved fate, has complicated my own independence. We need a father to rage against. When a father is neither dead nor alive, when he is a ghost, the will is impotent.’

Where the will is impotent, and the facts are unavailable, the imagination takes over. Matar’s two novels, In the Country of Men (2006) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011), both feature narrators whose fathers go missing. In the first, the son, Suleiman, is nine when his father briefly disappears in Tripoli in 1979; he returns so badly beaten that he’s almost unrecognisable. There’s a suspicion that he may have betrayed, under torture, a close friend, whose televised hanging takes place in the National Basketball Stadium in front of a large crowd. At the very least he’s guilty of recklessness, for harbouring opinions and literature hostile to the Gaddafi regime. But the son is the more active traitor: he humiliates friends by betraying their secrets, almost murders an old beggar by drowning him, and blabs to a man sent to spy on the family. Worst of all, when his father’s books are being burned as a precaution, he saves one of them, Democracy, from the flames, which later results, indirectly, in his father spending time in prison. Suleiman has meanwhile been sent away to Cairo, for his own safety: ‘I knew that I would never see my father again, that he would die while I was installed alone in a foreign country to thrive away from the madness.’ Professionally, he does thrive, becoming a pharmacist. But emotionally he’s crippled by survivor’s guilt, a feeling intensified by the closeness of the filial bond: in his mind, he and his father are ‘indistinguishable’.

In Anatomy of a Disappearance, the son, Nuri, is a little older, 14, when the father, Kamal, an Egyptian, goes missing in Geneva in 1972, the victim of a kidnapping: ‘How could I have not expected it? I did expect it. Did I not know that he had powerful enemies, that he was often followed? Why else was he so careful, so secretive?’ The secrecy turns out to involve sex as well as politics. After losing his wife and sending his son to an English boarding school, Kamal has married a much younger woman, to whom Nuri is dangerously attracted. He also, it emerges, has a long-standing mistress, Beatrice, from whose flat the kidnapping takes place. ‘He really was a great man,’ the family lawyer later tells Nuri, who wouldn’t mind him being a lesser one and resents the use of the past tense. By this point ten years have passed and Nuri has a PhD in art history. The final chapter sees him back in Cairo, in the family home, where he tries on his father’s clothes before deciding it’s premature: ‘He will need a raincoat when he comes back.’

When Philip Roth published his autobiography The Facts in 1989, after three decades of writing fiction, he attributed it to an ‘exhaustion with masks, disguises, distortions and lies … I needed clarification, as much of it as I could get – demythologising to induce depathologising.’ The Return is motivated by a similar need. It’s not that Matar’s two novels are failures – far from it – or that the emotion in them (to use Eliot’s criticism of Hamlet) exceeds the facts. But both feel like elegant discursions, circling a story they’re unable to tell: Suleiman is haunted by guilt, Nuri by Hamlet-like irresolution, while the bigger issue – what really happened to the father? – remains a mystery. In the first novel, we’re given two versions of the heart attack that kills him, one painless, the other agonising. In Anatomy of a Disappearance, asked what he thinks became of his father after the kidnapping, Nuri doesn’t know how to answer: ‘The truth is, I don’t believe Father is dead. But I don’t believe he is alive either.’

Matar uses the same words, with minor grammatical adjustments, on page 224 of The Return. ‘The truth was, at that moment I didn’t believe Father to be dead. But the truth was also that I didn’t believe him to be alive either.’ The moment in question was the 20th anniversary of his father’s disappearance. The memoir ostensibly opens two years later, in 2012, after Gaddafi’s overthrow, when Matar – now in his early forties – returns to Libya for the first time since 1979, hoping to discover the truth. He inhabits many other times and places as well, either from memory (as the child of an affluent, cosmopolitan family, he moved around a lot), or by learning about them during his quest. Indeed the book skips about so fast and frequently it’s bewildering that he holds it together, or holds himself together. Obsession provides the constant thread, the son’s one-track mind guiding us through the labyrinth. Like Telemachus, he wishes he had ‘some happy man/as father, growing old in his own house’. But if that’s not possible, he’d like to know when and how his father died: ‘I envy the finality of funerals.’

Father memoirs invariably involve a journey into terra incognita. But there’s a difference between a father keeping a secret from his family, as Keggie Carew describes hers doing in her memoir Dadland (Tom Carew was, among other things, part of an SOE unit), and the father being the secret that’s kept. Why Jaballa Matar was such a threat to Gaddafi is plain enough: having made a fortune importing Japanese and Western goods to the Middle East, he used it to fund a resistance movement, setting up military training camps in Chad and persuading other wealthy Libyan exiles to donate to the cause (by the late 1980s, his organisation had an annual budget of $15 million). His patriotism bordered on the fanatical: ‘Don’t put yourself in competition with Libya,’ he once warned his sons. ‘You will always lose.’ He wasn’t the only family member to run foul of Gaddafi. Mahmoud, his youngest brother, was one of four others arrested around the same time and not released till 2011. Mahmoud’s son Izzo was killed by a sniper during the fighting that year, and another son, Hamed, was wounded, half recovered, went to Syria and was wounded again. Marwan, a cousin, was one of a group of lawyers who stood up against the regime in its last days. The family’s oppositional heritage goes back at least as far as Matar’s grandfather, who fought against the Italian occupation of Libya a hundred years ago and around whom colourful legends have accrued. The facts are hard to come by: books on Libyan history are scarce. At one of the many points where Matar’s researches draw a blank, he describes being ‘back in that familiar place, a place of shadows where the only way to engage with what happened is through the imagination, an activity that serves only to excite the past, multiplying its possibilities, like a house with endless rooms’.

He knows from the outset of The Return that his father may well have been one of the 1270 men executed in Abu Salim prison on 29 June 1996. When the only witness (a fellow prisoner) to have seen him after that, in 2002, turns out to have got the wrong man, the probability increases. It troubles Matar that he could have failed to intuit the moment of death – no matter where you are, when it’s someone you love, surely you register it. Then he discovers, looking at an old diary, that he did. Living in London in the 1990s, he developed a habit of going to the National Gallery each day, to stare at a particular painting for 15 minutes – until, after days or even weeks, his interest was exhausted and he’d move on to another painting. On 29 June 1996 he switched from Velazquez’s Toilet of Venus to Manet’s Execution of Maximilian.

From his Uncle Hmad, another of the relatives who spent time in prison (and whose eventual release owed much to Matar’s campaigning), he hears in detail about the prison massacre: ‘Worst of all was the screaming. You heard it clearly when the machine-gun fire stopped.’ He’s consoled by the thought of his father dying among others and how, before that, thanks to holes in the walls between cells through which goods could be passed, he’d had access to books. The reader, less consoled, may reflect that the Gaddafi regime’s brutal treatment of the father is matched by its treatment of the son, not because of any violence or intimidation (though once his first novel was published Matar became a marked man, and even before his father’s arrest there was an attempt to abduct his brother Ziad from his boarding school in Switzerland), or because of the silence that met every request for information, but later, when Gaddafi seemed keener on forging relations with the West, because of the lies, false promises, fake chumminess, face-saving evasions and time-wasting he encountered, along with demands that, in exchange for the facts, he give the regime something in return. In 2010, through an intermediary, he made contact with Seif el-Islam, one of Gaddafi’s sons, recipient of a PhD from the LSE. A flurry of texts and phone calls followed, and various meetings took place with Seif and his cronies, one of them in the lobby of the InterContinental Park Lane Hotel, ‘one of a number of London hotels purchased with Libyan Investment Authority money’. But even before the regime fell the following year, it became clear that Matar would get nowhere. What Seif hoped for with his professions of friendship was to buy Matar off and get him onside – a ludicrous idea, but since Seif had succeeded in winning over many in the British establishment, why not?

At the end​ of The Facts, Roth’s fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, delivers a damning verdict on the author’s foray into non-fiction, not least his decision to change people’s names in order to protect them: ‘In the fiction you can be so much more truthful … To tell what you tell best is forbidden to you here by a decorous, citizenly, filial conscience. With this book you’ve tied your hands behind your back and tried to write it with your toes.’ Matar suffers no such inhibition. His filial conscience lets no one off lightly, not even Nelson Mandela, who wasn’t prepared to imperil pan-African relations by raising the case of Jaballa Matar with Gaddafi (Desmond Tutu, by contrast, did his bit). Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson are fingered too, for cosying up to the Libyans, and though David Miliband was full of goodwill, a meeting at his office ended in Seif-like smarminess. Miliband placed a hand on Matar’s shoulder and asked: ‘Are you British now?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Good man. Excellent. So you’re one of us.’ At a visit to the Foreign Office, Matar was told that Gaddafi’s ambition was ‘to be taken in a gold carriage down Pall Mall. He has several times requested to meet the queen.’

No government likes to own up to its crimes. The whole point of being a dictator is that you don’t have to account for yourself. When Aminatta Forna set out to find the truth about the father she lost when she was ten – a doctor and later finance minister in Sierra Leone, he was arrested, tried, imprisoned and executed for his alleged involvement in a coup – she too was lied to and fobbed off. Like Matar, she remembers her father as strong and charismatic, and as a lover of poetry. Unlike him, she knows her father is dead and does get a few answers. As she writes in The Devil That Danced on Water (2002), ‘I had spent 25 years in ignorance and one year gradually uncovering some of the truth, and yet now I could barely recall what it felt like not to know. It was as though this terrible knowledge of the lies and the manipulation, the greed and the corruption, the fear and violence had been with me for ever.’

When the truth is traumatic, which is the more corrosive, knowledge or benightedness? ‘Enormities should not be scrutinised,’ Donald Davie wrote, eight years after the end of the Second World War, ‘The queasy Levite need not be ashamed/To have no stomach for atrocities./We brook them better once they have been named.’ His logic-chopping looks perverse, sixty years on. Whether the enormity is Auschwitz or Hillsborough, Truth and Reconciliation require that the facts come out and the guilty be identified. Matar presses for an answer he dreads, knowing the worst can’t be worse than imagining it. It’s not that he expects closure. The boundary between life and death is complicated, he says. That he thinks of his father continually denotes his father’s continuity: ‘I do not have a grammar for him … Even if I had held his hand, and felt it slacken as he exhaled his last breath, I would still, I believe, every time I refer to him, pause to search for the right tense.’ The father will have a future, whatever, but the son can’t live in the present till he knows his father has passed. When Matar writes that he’s finally almost free of hope (‘All that remains are a few scattered grains’), it’s with a sense of relief, even triumph.

The book is full of such paradoxes. They’re an expression of the narrator (who’s complex, nuanced, a man who quotes Homer and Shakespeare to explain how he feels), and they reflect what he learns about the nature of truth (hard to find, hard to articulate and hard to bear). The most telling paradox comes at the high point of his lobbying for information: ‘My father never felt more distant than during those days when every minute was dedicated to finding him.’ The return to Libya didn’t find him, either. But The Return brings him closer, through childhood memories – there’s one of him watching football on television (Bayern Munich were his favourite team) – and through stories of his life before imprisonment (including stories he wrote himself). It may be a book about not-knowing, and the effects of not-knowing. But by the end we know enough about the father to understand why people loved him. Which is as much as any son, paying homage, can hope for – to show why his father mattered and in doing so keep him alive.

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