As Hisham Matar was finishing his latest novel, about a young man so grief-stricken by a father’s absence that he stalks his lovers and wears his suits, word reached Matar that his own father might still be alive. Jaballa Matar was a leading Libyan dissident who vanished without trial in 1990 into Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s dungeons. Over 20 years, the family received only two letters from him, smuggled out of his cell. They feared he was among more than 1,000 political detainees shot dead in a prison riot in the mid-’90s. Then came this sliver of hope, that he had been seen alive in a jail in the capital, Tripoli.
For his son, a successful writer living in England, the vague message was “tremendous but unsettling. I felt I’d provoked it, by spending three years on a book taking me into dark places of the soul,” he told NEWSWEEK in his West London apartment. The unverifiable news was “like a voice in my head. Writing this book took me a little too close to the flame.”
Anatomy of a Disappearance is out in the U.S. on Aug. 23. By coincidence, it came out in London on the heels of the Libyan uprising in February that could yet bring a resolution to the author’s torturous uncertainty. On Feb. 3, when Gaddafi still hoped to head off protests, two of Matar’s uncles and two cousins were released after 21 years of wrongful imprisonment, along with eight other political prisoners. His father was not among them.
Matar, 40, with ink-black curls, has a gentle air of detachment and a haunting past. He was born in New York, where his father was a U.N. diplomat, the year after Gaddafi’s bloodless coup. He was raised in Tripoli until he was 9, when his family fled to Egypt. At boarding school in England, he lived under a false identity as “Bob,” a Christian from Cairo, because Libyan agents were picking off political exiles and their families. He was 19, an architecture student in London, when his father was abducted from their Cairo home by Hosni Mubarak’s security forces. They handed him over to be tortured in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison.
Matar’s 2006 debut, In the Country of Men, revealed a Libya of public executions and private betrayals through the eyes of a boy in the late ’70s whose dissident father is incarcerated by the “Guide.” After that novel, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, Matar campaigned openly for his father. Desmond Tutu and Salman Rushdie were among his supporters.
The brutal disappearance of a loved one lacks the finality of bereavement. Matar finds it devastating that “their experience continues at the expense of your intimacy. If my father is alive, he’s formed strong friendships in another place. There’s a jealousy.”
Anatomy of a Disappearance moves between Egypt, Switzerland, and London to trace a corrosive love triangle. After fleeing an unnamed dictatorship, 12-year-old Nuri and his widowed father become rivals for a young Egyptian-English woman. When the father is brutally abducted from the bed of a Swiss woman, Nuri’s guilt grows at having lost the father he once wished to banish. It is a haunting tale of a man suspended in the past, his identity fixed by loss.
Matar’s imagination was awakened by his family’s need for subterfuge. When he was 8, his father was listed for interrogation and hid in Europe. His mother, desperate to join him, lied to the authorities that he had abandoned her to start another family. Curious more than upset, Matar pictured a blond half-sibling, and his father with a Swiss wife. When his mother weakened and telephoned her husband, he told her never to call again, and hung up. “It was difficult for both of them,” Matar says. “They had to pretend they were divorced, so they could be together.”
The novel’s dictatorship is 1950s Iraq, not Libya. But Matar, who will teach the fiction of “estrangement and exile” at Barnard College in New York in the fall, knows political exile to be a common Arab predicament. He writes of fathers and sons, but also about history: “My father’s generation were the audacious radicals, drunk on idealism and republican revolutions. My generation is one of disappointment. Exile has made us pessimists.”
Before the Arab Spring, he feared his father’s sacrifice had been futile. Now, seeing Libyan protesters carry pictures of Jaballa Matar and early dissidents who were killed, he believes such people “carved with their bare hands the first steps to this revolution.” When the uprising began, Matar and his wife, Diana, a California-born photographer, channeled information to the media from a makeshift “newsroom” in their London home, making up to 100 calls a day to Libya.
Speaking to his freed uncles gave him joy. “I realized how much you can take from a man, but you can only take so much. My uncle missed 21 years—his children are fully grown—but he still has his humor, intelligence, and resistance.” With Benghazi secured, Matar’s elder brother, Ziad, went searching, “but it yielded nothing. I would be surprised if my father’s alive, but there’s a very reasonable possibility. When the regime falls, we’ll have access to the prisons.”
He views it as scandalous that Western powers were “laughing at Gaddafi privately while doing business” with him and prolonging the regime. Though he is certain it will fall, he worries more about what comes next. After six months of fighting, the rebel coalition “risks being fractured. It’s Gaddafi’s last legacy—to leave us armed and fraught. How will the different factions construct something together where no one is asking for a louder voice or privileges because of how hard they fought or how much they lost?”
Loss has left Matar thirsty for justice, not revenge. The “robust and fair trials” he craves could also yield clues to end his personal anguish.