Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar is an enjoyable, well-written short novel that tells the tale of a boy whose father is snatched away from their life in exile by, apparently, Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya.
The Libya connection is never spelled out explicitly, but the sketchy backstory is that the father was the most trusted counselor to the king of a country next to Egypt before the king was led out into a courtyard and shot. Thereafter the father led a dissident campaign, and his recompense was being kidnapped in Geneva....and apparently killed somewhere.
This left the boy, Nuri, adrift with his young step-mother, Mona, with whom he was in love. Neither understood the father’s (Kamal’s) role in international politics, and his disappearance mystifies them despite the somewhat lame assistance of Kamal’s long-time Swiss lawyer.
Said lawyer knew much more than he revealed at the time of the kidnapping. Ten years later Nuri revisits Geneva and forces out the truth, which I won’t reveal for fear of spoiling the novel for potential readers.
There are additional plot twists as well but as this book progresses, it’s clear that its strength is the narrative voice, and development, of Nuri, and its weakness is the belated explanation of who Kamal really was.
There are good short scenes in Cairo, Geneva, London, and northern England, where Nuri is sent to boarding school. The depictions of the family retainers in Cairo are also good. Matar does a lot with short sentences and short chapters. Mona comes apart logically, but it is interesting to see this happen. Nuri? We can’t be sure what impact this frequently compelling tale has had on him, even though the book ultimately concludes where it begins in an apartment in Cairo, and his return to Egypt is some kind of statement.
My “issue” with this tale is that it hinges somewhat on the assumption that the assassinated king of Libya and his court were the good guys and Gaddafi was a bad buy. Yes, Gaddafi turned out to be a very bad guy, but this is a book centered on the exotic appeal of very wealthy, cosmopolitan Libyans, and I, for one, kept asking myself about how they got so wealthy and how deeply they were cosmopolitan. Over the last three or four hundred years, we have seen that monarchs, unless very tightly constrained by a constitutional democracy, are a flawed, pretentious bunch. Are we to shed tears for the Shah of Iran or the last kings of Jordan and Morocco when their times come? How about the King of Saudi Arabia? Or Thailand? The underlying nostalgia for privileged aristocracy done wrong disturbed me.
Again, this is not to take Gaddfi’s side, nor is it to take the side of another revolutionary who spent a lot of time in Switzerland, Lenin, but a novel that ultimately hinges on liking a man for his association with nobility is problematic. Kamal should have been in the foreground, not exposed ex post facto, in all his complexity. That would have made this book a better one, and it would have made the central character, Nuri, all the more interesting. The emphasis placed on his sentimental education misses the point that his life was financed by very wealthy interests that predominated in a very poor land.
For more of my comments on contemporary fiction, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).
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