Hisham Matar

In November, a few days after Donald Trump won the presidential election, I flew to Arkansas to give a reading at the Fayetteville Public Library. I landed just before sunset. The earth was the colour of rust, the trees fiery with the end of autumn and the cattle, which grazed with seemingly no movement at all, were black. I didn’t know anyone there. A Libyan friend had written to say that there was a Syrian poet who taught at the University of Arkansas. But I couldn’t remember her name, and the email he sent me seemed to have vanished.

On the drive from the airport to my hotel we passed ranches. Even after centuries, much of American architecture, with its hurried certainties, still looks temporary. Each farm was separated by long stretches of nothing. I thought about the disgraced Austrian seaman, a minor character who appears briefly in Lord Jim. He loses his temper and, spitting and huffing, cries out in broken English: ‘I vill an Amerigan citizen begome.’ Conrad’s narrator tells us that as he said this, the seaman was ‘fretting and fuming and shuffling his feet as if to free his ankles from some invisible and mysterious grasp that would not let him get away from that spot’. The image of a grown man struggling to break free while emphatically declaring that he will, against all the odds, cleanse himself of history, had made me laugh on the plane.

Why had I brought Lord Jim with me? I had read it several times before and when I put it in my bag in London it felt as if I were packing a good luck charm. I had been looking forward to this series of trips, to visiting places in America that I had never been to, places such as Arkansas, and doing so at a time of great political division in the United States. And yet, despite the fact that I was born in America, and that America is where my wife is from, and that it is where my parents spent the first years of their marriage, and that, like most Arabs of my generation, I grew up when it was already impossible to escape American films and books and music, no country fills me with more melancholy. Nowhere do I feel more foreign, more out of place and out of time. It’s as if the moment I land in the country the gates shut behind me.

Maybe this is why I had brought Lord Jim along. Conrad’s sentences make me feel less dislocated, which is odd given that they are themselves miniature illustrations of dislocation, often about men at the whim of circumstance, governed by personal codes rather than collective cultures. The deepest outrage that drives Lord Jim comes not so much from the dishonourable act he commits, when in a moment of weakness and fear he abandons the passengers aboard his sinking ship and chooses instead to save his own life. His despair belongs to a deeper order. He is unsettled by what his failure reveals about human nature: its vulnerability to fear and its unwillingness to forgive. Ultimately, it’s a novel about shame.

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