Saturday, April 10, 2010

In the Country of Men

In the Country of Men
Hisham Matar

Suleiman is a nine-year-old boy in tumultuous Libya. He plays in the dust with the neighborhood boys, makes things from odds and ends in his workshop on the roof, eats mulberries until he is sick, and lives with his mother and father. But his father is often gone on business trips, and Suleiman's mother gets sick when she's alone. Still, Suleiman lives a normal sort of life - until the police show up and drag off the man who lives next door, a friend of father, father of Suleiman's best friend. The man's execution in a basketball stadium is aired on live TV. Will Suleiman's father be next?

What makes this story tumultuous is not the politics or the brutality, it's the chilling realization that everyone, even a young child, is subject to renouncing good in an effort to hide away from evil. We see values shift: Mama hated Baba, hides from him, yet only sings happily when he is around; Baba believes in truth but won't answer questions; Suleiman is considered too young to pay attention to and ends up trying to impress whatever adult he can find - even if the adult happens to be a police officer spying on Baba. All of them are forced to wonder what it means to be a man in Libya, a person in Libya.

The writing is clean and full of emotion, but the story leaves the world messy and untouched by the lives of the characters. Perhaps life is hopeless, perhaps there is nothing we can do but muddle along trying to find the lesser evils to invite into life so they can take up the space the greater horrors seek to fill. But if that's true, I don't really want to read about it.

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