The Return by Hisham Matar

“What do you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?”

When Hisham Matar was in university in London, his father, a Libyan dissident, was abducted by the Libyan government from Cairo. From letters smuggled to them, his family learnt that he was held at the Abu Salim prison in Libya. His family never saw him again, even after the prisons were emptied and the government overthrown. This is the story of Matar’s search for answers as he returns home to Libya.

It’s not an easy read but Matar makes it a little more difficult as the story meanders quite a bit. His prose is often intense and emotional.

“Pain shrinks the heart. This, I believe, is part of the intention. You make a man disappear to silence him but also to narrow the minds of those left behind, to pervert their soul and limit their imagination.”

One thing that I was struck by was how, after I was done with this book, I could not picture his mother. Yes, this book is about the questions and his search for his father, but his mother was his main parent for most of his life, and we barely know who she is. She is mentioned here and there, very much in the background, then the story reverts back to his father. The only parts I recall about his mother was when she planned epic dinner parties in Cairo (this was before the father’s disappearance), requiring specifically Libyan olive oil and orange blossom water to be ordered. I wondered, does he not talk about the disappearance with his mother?

“With every passing day the father journeys further into his night, deeper into the fog, leaving behind remnants of himself and the monumental yet obvious fact, at once frustrating and merciful—for how else is the son to continue living if he must not also forget—that no matter how hard we try we can never entirely know our fathers.” 

And what about the mothers? Do sons try to know their mothers too?

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