NBCC Awards Finalists in Fiction:Hisham Matar’s “In the Country of Men”


This is the twelfth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Hisham Matar,”In the Country of Men,” Dial Press.

Children can be unreliable witnesses when it comes to the facts. But they are often spot on regarding emotional truths.  Hisham Matar, a 30-something writer of Libyan extraction, successfully borrows this guileless quality in his moving first novel, “In the Country of Men.”

The novel, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, uses a 9-year-old boy named Suleiman to bear witness to Muammar Qaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya through the family dynamics of one Libyan household.

This is a book is about both social and political betrayal—two sides of the same coin, it appears, in Matar’s “country of men.”  Young Suleiman’s mother was forced to marry a man she didn’t love in order to preserve her family’s honor.  As the only child born of this union, the boy internalizes his mother’s bitter perspective, but feminists beware:  This story will satisfy only those who can marvel at the ability of anyone, man or woman, to adapt and endure.

When we first meet them, Mama unloads her sorrows on her adoring son while soothing them with her “medicine,” a drugstore equivalent of the cocktail hour that defies the Islamic prohibition against drinking alcohol. The young Suleiman fantasizes about avenging the injustice done to her, but not without self-doubt.  He adores his father, too, even though Baba is a distant and mysterious figure who spends much of his time away on business trips. 

“Can you become a man without becoming your father?” the boy wonders. It is a question with more than one answer, as Suleiman gradually discovers, along with the reasons for his father’s absences: In this country, it’s risky business to oppose Qaddafi’s rule and “work” as a political activist.

In due time the government’s strong men arrive to take his father away.  His mother and a friend burn Baba’s books to destroy evidence, but Suleiman rescues one, entitled “Democracy Now.”  Although he sense danger, he lacks the tools to respond appropriately. He unwittingly abets the enemy even as his mother is trying to save her husband’s life.

“And which building on Martyrs’ Square are you not sure he lives in?&#82#8221; the mysterious voice on the telephone asks. Suleiman the innocent—as opposed to his probable namesake, the legendary Ottoman leader Suleiman the Magnificent—blithely condemns one of his father’s colleagues.

“It has green shutters. His is on the top floor, with a red towel on the clothesline in front of the window,“he replies.

With no reason other than his disturbed psyche, Suleiman turns on his best friend, unintentionally imitating the repudiations that are taking place at a much higher level. Joining Mama to deliver a cake to a neighbor who is tied to the Qaddafi government, he watches the games people play even on matters of life and death.  Under fire, Mama is tough and wily, and her relationship with her husband is forever changed.

Readers of this remarkable novel will learn a little about Libya’s political history and a lot about how power corrupts and absolute powers corrupts absolutely. They will also be haunted by the boy Suleiman, his fate, and his eventual awakening to the complexities of adult relationships.—Ellen Emry Heltzel

Review in The Guardian.

Excerpt in The Guardian.