Sue's Reviews > In the Country of Men

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
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Sep 07, 10

bookshelves: fiction-foreign-places
Read in January, 2007

From my blog:
written by Hisham Matar and published in February 2007 by The Dial Press. This is Matar's bio as written on the end flap:

Hisham Matar was born in 1970 in New York city to Libyan parents and spent his childhood in Tripoli and Cairo. He lives in London and is currently at work on his second novel. In the Country of Men will be published in twenty-two languages.

This was a difficult book to read, not because of the density of the writing - dense it was not - but because the characters drew you into their lives in such a way that you wanted to, but couldn't, dialog with them. The story is told through the eyes and voice of a 9-year-old boy, Suleiman, as he describes how he sees what's happening to his family - his mother, his father, and his uncle - and their immediate friends and relatives in Libya in 1979.

The story is tragic in many ways, but life is life and tragedy is part of it. You have to take it as it is because it's the only way to get to know, appreciate, and respect those whose lives are different from our own.

Just the other evening, a group of us were talking about what we perceived as the tragic lives of an elderly couple we all know, a couple who never has enough money to buy healthy food or clothing and who lives in substandard housing. Yet, you can't go in and fix the situation, or even try, unless you're asked, because the damage to human dignity, when you try to make a "happily ever after," according to our own individual standards, is often more damaging than the "tragic" circumstances themselves.

Thus is was with this book. I kept wanting to "explain things" to this little boy, to tell him to grow up and learn what it means to keep a secret, to trust his family, even though it seemed that all the world was falling apart. So much I wanted to tell him. I wanted to hold him in my arms with my hands close to his mouth to keep him quiet, perhaps in the way you might do with a small child. I wanted Suleiman to be more mature than he was, and I wondered why he wasn't. I wanted to tell his mother that she needed to help him grow up by explaining more than she did. The book made me want to get involved and "fix things."

But this was Suleiman's life, his mother's life, his father's life, his uncle's life, and the lives of their friends and relatives, and I could only observe. It's better that way. We can't rule the universe; and even if we could, our disasters might be worse than the real ones we perceive.

The book was disturbing, but I'm glad I read it. The story will stay with me for a long time. I'm glad Hisham Matar told the story in a way I could read and feel it. I am better, even though sadder, for having experienced a bit of Suleiman's life. Like the rest of us who survive childhood - and Suleiman did, we go on and we make of our lives what we can, the best we can. I hope he is doing well!
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