My Friends 
by Hisham Matar.
Viking, 458 pp., £18.99, January, 978 0 241 40948 0
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Hisham Matar​ doesn’t need to look far for his subject matter. In his remarkable memoir The Return (2016) he explained that a privileged childhood in a wealthy Libyan family turned to nightmare when his father, leader of an anti-Gaddafi insurrection, was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990 and imprisoned in Tripoli. He eventually disappeared, never to re-emerge. As a result Matar’s education in the UK – first at boarding school, then at university in London – turned into permanent exile. His first novel, In the Country of Men (2006), dramatises a young boy’s turmoil when both his neighbour and father are arrested in Tripoli by Gaddafi’s secret police. In his second, Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011), a son and a glamorous stepmother, with whom the young man is infatuated, search for a revolutionary father who has been abducted by the police of an unnamed Middle Eastern state.

Both novels are engaging, but the memoir is a work of quite different scope and achievement, which makes them pale somewhat in comparison. It’s understandable, then, that Matar might hesitate before returning to fiction. In 2019 he published A Month in Siena, ostensibly a meditation on the paintings of the Sienese Renaissance, but also an exploration of the relationship between citizen and state, individual freedom and civic duty, which he feels those paintings illustrate. The book develops a style of melancholic reflection, Sebald-like, that moves back and forth between cultural analysis and private drama:

The distance between where we stood now in Siena, in front of Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government, and that moment, a couple of years before, when Diana [Matar’s wife] and I had landed in Rome from Tripoli, in the wake of my momentous return to my country after more than three decades of exile, a period of time in which I became a man and perhaps a different kind of man from that other one I might have been had I remained in Libya; and the hours after seeing David with the Head of Goliath in the Galleria Borghese, searching for shade and finding a place to rest under a pine on a green beside the Sant’Andrea al Quirinale – all seemed to fold together and collapse like a concertina of days made of the same fabric. Here we were in Siena, Rome and Tripoli all at once; and here we were looking at the faces of Lorenzetti’s Justice and her victim, as well as those of Caravaggio’s David and Goliath.

A few pages later, observing a family placing flowers by a headstone in a cemetery, Matar arrives at the book’s resonant moment:

The instant my eyes fell on them something made me look away. I felt, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s phrase, I had to take custody of my eyes. I hoped they did not see me, the mourner without a grave … I knew then that I had come to Siena not only to look at paintings. I had also come to grieve alone, to consider the new terrain and to work out how I might continue from here.

Matar’s new novel, My Friends, is by far his longest book to date. This time the familiar story of political violence and uneasy expatriation is told through the protagonist’s relationships with the friends who have sustained him through more than thirty years of exile. Written in the first person and blending the melodrama of the earlier fiction with the reflective style of the memoirs, the novel opens at King’s Cross Station in November 2016. The narrator, Khaled Abd al Hady, is saying what seems a final goodbye to his friend Hosam Zowa, who is emigrating to the US. As Khaled walks home to Shepherd’s Bush, taking in the Regent’s Park mosque, where the BBC journalist Mohammed Mustafa Ramadan was killed in 1980, then the Libyan embassy in St James’s Square, where the policewoman Yvonne Fletcher was shot dead by an embassy official during an anti-Gaddafi demonstration in 1984, he looks back at a profoundly wounded life.

Once again there is a distinguished father, this time the headmaster of a school in Benghazi. Unlike the fathers in Matar’s previous books, however, Ustath Kamal Abd al Hady does not openly oppose Gaddafi’s regime. He is a closet historian, privately gathering facts that condemn Gaddafi but anxious not to expose himself to danger: he is ‘part of that silent army that exists in every country, made up of individuals who had come to the conclusion that they live among unreasonable compatriots and therefore must, like grown-ups in a playground, endure the chaos until the bell rings, resigned to the fact that this may come long after they are gone’. Watched over by a hyper-protective mother, Khaled is similarly cautious: he has ‘always been a careful angel’, as his father puts it. But one day in March 1980, the family hear Ramadan read out a short story on the BBC’s Arabic service. Written by the young Hosam Zowa, it describes a man who allows himself to be eaten alive by a vicious cat, until, when only his head remains, he at last finds the courage to say no. At which point the cat simply departs, ‘leaving the man to finally resume his life’. Might casting off dictatorship require no more than an act of will?

Only weeks later, plagued by dreams ‘where I sometimes saw myself as the limbless figure, in constant need of looking after’, Khaled hears of Ramadan’s murder: ‘A stray dog has met his end,’ Libyan state television announces. He reacts to this combination of challenge and warning by immersing himself in international literature. In the journal World Literature Written in English, he tackles an article by Professor Henry Walbrook with the unalluring title ‘The Consequences of Meaning in the Infidelities of Translation’. Literature appears to offer a place for both passive opposition and shelter. Reading and caution are connected: ‘Khaled the reader, Khaled the reasonable boy,’ he imagines his father thinking. At the same time fiction, like the story of the cat, can have revolutionary implications. Three years later, Khaled enrols at the University of Edinburgh, where Walbrook teaches. ‘Don’t be lured in,’ his father warns him, and we know at once that he will be. In Matar’s fiction, everything is heavily foreshadowed. ‘We are living in the century of fear,’ he has said, and his characters move in an atmosphere of impending catastrophe.

Khaled’s studies are funded by a scholarship from the Libyan government, but he is also being watched by students sent to spy on their compatriots. Mustafa al Touny is the only other Libyan who, as Khaled sees it, has ‘come to actually study’. They become friends. But Mustafa ‘entered books with pointed implements’, examining the author’s political views and ‘ethical standing’, seeking to condemn or exonerate. Khaled finds this ‘passionate keenness’ unsettling. The ‘friends’ of the novel are easily divided into the Libyans and the others: those who draw Khaled back towards home and those who encourage him to make his life abroad. There is Walbrook, with whom Khaled discovers how tempting it is ‘when you are away from home, to make stuff up’: to say, for example, that from the roof of his family’s Benghazi house one could ‘see all the way to Crete’. Rana, on the other hand, is a wealthy Lebanese student, entirely at ease in a cosmopolitan environment. She and Khaled form a chaste intimacy around cooking and going to the cinema. ‘Was I falling in love?’ Khaled asks.

Walking past the Regent’s Park mosque in 2016, Khaled imagines, over several pages, Ramadan’s murder more than three decades previously. Ramadan is given a series of extended Proustian ruminations as he climbs the stairs from the mosque’s basement bathroom to meet two menacing strangers at the top. Supposing that the journalist savours the smell of the newspapers he distributes at the mosque, and associates that smell with the hope that, once printed, a fact can no longer be ignored, Khaled goes on: ‘And this would have come with a sense of gratitude, understanding, perhaps for the first time, that he was among the lucky ones whose life and days and minutes had been lived purposefully.’ It is just one of many instances when the narrator’s fondness for subordinate clauses results in a certain mannerism, as if the demands of style were beginning to dictate content. After all, why would Ramadan have had that thought for the first time at such a moment?

Khaled turns south towards the old Libyan embassy in St James’s Square. He hasn’t been back there in all his years in London. He was right to worry about Mustafa’s political fervour. In 1984, in response to the arrest, torture and killing of students in Libya, a demonstration was planned outside the embassy. Mustafa persuades him to take the bus down from Edinburgh. When they arrive in London, ‘my heart, captured by a powerful premonition, knocked violently.’ The two students spend an evening drinking, pick up masks for the demonstration from a sex shop, then, at Mustafa’s instigation, go to a strip club. Sex, like political involvement, is an area of danger. Seeing a naked woman spread on ‘blood-red satin’, Khaled is reminded of his father’s description of washing the ‘shockingly pale’ corpse of his grandfather. Later he dreams that the same woman, dressed as a nurse, is placing a gun ‘hot from the previous patient’ against his chest. At the demonstration the following day he and Mustafa are among those hit when a gunman opens fire from inside the embassy. Khaled is shot in the chest.

He wakes up in hospital. He has to assume that the Libyan authorities have identified him as an opponent of the regime. He can’t go back to Edinburgh or to Libya. He knows that his parents’ phone will be tapped, and that any letters he sends will be opened. ‘You are now a danger to those you love the most,’ he realises. Aged eighteen, afraid and vulnerable, he has to be both his ‘own custodian’ and the custodian of his family. That means cutting off all communication with his parents. Friends are all that remain. Mustafa goes into hiding in Manchester, but Khaled decides not to follow him. Rana comes to the rescue: her parents have an empty flat in Notting Hill. With a character reference from Walbrook, Khaled manages to find a job as a sales assistant in a clothes shop.

This first third of the novel is persuasively told. Khaled is faced with the perpetual dilemma: to assimilate in the UK or to remain stubbornly attached to memories of home. Preoccupied with the family he feels he has let down, he finds himself marooned. On holiday with Rana and her friend Seham, whose parents own a house on the Costa Brava, his ‘stern command’ gives way and he kisses Seham. ‘But in the morning, when she came towards me, all present and vivid, I did not lend myself.’ She is upset in exactly the way a younger girl in The Return is ‘taken back, betrayed’ when a relationship begins and is then abruptly broken off for similar reasons.

A few months later, Mustafa, more resilient than Khaled, reappears and plunges into London life. The two men cook Libyan dishes together. Nothing is said about the experience of working in a shop, as if that part of Khaled’s life could have no meaning. ‘I had some lovers,’ he tells us. ‘Nothing ever lasted long.’ He lies to his girlfriends about the scar on his chest. In search of a purpose, he turns once again to literature, enrolling at Birkbeck. Now the world of books seems to provide an alternative, inclusive community. Khaled begins to ‘see novels and poetry … not as a field of demarcations, made up of languages and periods and styles and schools and civilisations, but rather as a great river with its own internal ancestry’. In a poetry class he meets a girl to whom he finally reveals his story. Hannah is generous, available, loving, but, like the other women in the book, with the exception of Khaled’s mother, strangely characterless. It seems as if nothing can really happen between the two of them. Neither his positive vision of literature nor the affection of a partner can cure Khaled’s longing for home. When, years later, he becomes an English teacher in a secondary school he finds that, despite his idea of literature as something that binds people together, he struggles to connect with his English students. ‘I had no bond with the kids; or the sort of bond I imagined I would have if they were Libyan or if I were English.’ National culture remains a fact. The most important event in Khaled’s life over the next decade is a short visit from his parents and sister in 1992. He doesn’t introduce them to Hannah.

Matar isn’t afraid to strain our credulity. Eleven years after the shooting, Rana, now married in Beirut, calls to say that she’s having brain surgery in Paris. She hasn’t told her husband, but asks Khaled to hold her hand while she’s in hospital. (The medical drama is resolved with little fuss.) Checking into a cheap hotel, he senses ‘with profound certainty’ that he knows the man behind the desk. It is none other than Hosam Zowa, who wrote the story that so deeply influenced him. Hosam, it turns out, was also at the embassy in 1984. The two men become friends, agreeing that ‘Libyans never leave home,’ and Hosam follows Khaled to London, moving into the flat below his. For the first time in years, Khaled enjoys ‘the feel of being part of a family’.

The three friends, Mustafa, Hosam and Khaled, are at once needy and mistrustful. They constantly re-examine their positions on exile and Libya. Mustafa sometimes seems determined to settle in the UK, but goes through periods of obsessive anti-Gaddafi militancy. Hosam takes Khaled on long walks to visit the homes of authors he admires: Woolf, Conrad, Eliot. There is a kind of smouldering tension between the men. ‘I could not help being Mustafa with Hosam and Hosam with Mustafa,’ Khaled says, ‘as though condemned to maintain their voices in some kind of balance.’ In this protracted stalemate, the novel drifts and grows sentimental. The note of poignant melancholy is sounded again and again. A relationship between Hosam and an Irish woman he met years ago very much resembles Khaled’s on-off affair with Hannah. Everybody is well-meaning, everybody reads good books and visits art galleries, everybody cooks healthy food, nobody is happy, nobody moves on. Matar’s prose, with its gentle archaisms and deliberate exoticisms, its analogies that seem to come from another culture (Khaled was born with ‘a basket of worries’), adds to the sense of being on a meander cut off from the main current.

Finally the Arab Spring shakes things up. In 2011, aged 45, Khaled can at last call and message his family freely. Mustafa goes to Libya to fight; Hosam returns to his home in Benghazi, falls in love with a cousin and sends Khaled long emails that almost amount to a novella within the novel. He eventually joins the same militia as Mustafa, both men becoming ‘enduringly connected … to the passions of [their] country and people’. Improbably, Hosam himself finds and captures Gaddafi. Back in his bedroom in London, Khaled looks for tickets to Benghazi and feels ‘tears rolling down my cheeks in the dark’. He can’t return, he can’t feel happy about not returning.

So many of Matar’s themes – trauma and vulnerability, the question of how to oppose authoritarianism, the experience of exile – seem very contemporary. Yet there is something profoundly conservative about My Friends. Khaled might look back on his upbringing with conflicted nostalgia, but the most highly prized values remain those of the traditional family: loyalty to family always trumps romantic love. The rituals of Muslim life and the wisdom of some of its teachers are celebrated for the structure and collective protection they offer. At the same time, the constant effort to recuperate the past through lyrical evocation, measuring every event by the narrator’s emotional response, can cloy. Towards the end of the novel, Khaled visits Hannah, who has had time to marry and divorce. He feels drawn by ‘a magnetic force’ to her two children, ‘as though they were mine but in translation’ – so much so that ‘their existence, their mouths and fingers and hair, their smell and voices, painfully wove together what is with what could have been.’ Perhaps a talent for wistfulness can be as much of an obstacle to moving on as the original trauma.

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