x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

An ever-present absence: Anatomy of a Disappearance

Blurring the lines between autobiography and fiction, Hisham Matar's latest novel vividly conveys the pain and frustration of a family dealing with the mystery of a missing father.

An open-air market in the Old Quarter of Cairo.
An open-air market in the Old Quarter of Cairo.

If the title doesn't already contain the beginning and end of the novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance opens: "There are times when my father's absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest." This emotional state made flesh is characteristic of Hisham Matar's finely wrought prose. As in his 2006 Man Booker-shortlisted In the Country of Men, it brims with analogies so apt they barely register as an effect of style: they just feel like the truth. "She had that English quality of placing the people she knew in compartments, as if fearing they would contaminate one another", is both personally and culturally revealing.

Here, Matar's subject is abduction and international intrigue. Yet this is not a story of twists or plot-based pyrotechnics. There are revelations, but they are gradual; at times we cotton on long before the protagonist. At first all we know is that Nuri el Alfi's father, Kamal Pasha, disappeared when this son was 14, in 1972. As if to bear out his thesis that "nothing is more acceptable than that which we are born into", it's not until a third of the way through that we learn his father was a government minister in Egypt, who fled after "our king was dragged to the courtyard of the palace and shot in the head". (The real king Farouk died, exiled in Rome in 1965). Later still, we learn quite how important a minister Kamal was. During these years, Nuri is born in Paris and lives a life of affluent exile before his father becomes a Marxist ("each age calls for its own solution") and they return to Cairo.

The fact that Matar's own father disappeared (and is still missing) under similarly suspicious circumstances adds an extra level of empathy, not to say fascination. Matar's parents are Libyan rather than Egyptian, so the novel oughtn't be read as straightforward autobiography, but the tangible, almost touchable nature of the physical description, not to mention the emotional devastation, cannot but give the reader pause.

By default, we accept the state of things as much as our narrator does. A political thriller has been thrown into the background, leaving us to dwell with the stricken characters left behind, characters who might traditionally be considered minor. Our narrator, Nuri, is convincingly - and, in the context, refreshingly - helpless. "I did not know how to name what had taken place," he says: "kidnap, abduction, theft? None of them seemed right. And how was I to answer the questions that would surely follow, about why and who and how and wasn't there anything I can do."

Of course there is nothing that Nuri can do other than wait, wait and fixate on the meagre clues - a newspaper story and photograph, a letter, oblique comments overheard during his childhood. Several exquisitely rendered scenes concern a character entering the scene of a photograph which was previously a piece of evidence. Anecdotes are retold. The same objects reoccur, like props in a cyclical re-enactment of the same events. At times the unknowingness shades into comedy. The only very slightly shady Uncle Taleb asks Nuri to call him if anyone approaches him:

 

"Anyone like who?"

"Anyone like anyone,' he said. When I did not speak he added, 'If anyone does, you call me, understand?"

"OK," I said, even though I had no idea what he meant."

 

Because of its dreadful and powerfully evoked shadow, it is hard not to give the impression that the novel is all about the kidnapping. In fact, the greater part concerns Mona, Kamal Pasha's second wife and the subject of Nuri's own sexual obsession ever since he first saw her, before his father did, when he was 12. Half the novel concerns the years after Nuri's mother's death (in unclear circumstances - possibly suicide). His father is so physically present and mercurial in temper, one forgets his impending disappearance. "As soon as he had finished eating he would light a cigarette and snap his fingers for the bill, not bothering to see whether I had finished too." Yet "that tender-hearted sympathy would rise in him at the most unexpected moments, and he would plunge his face into my neck, sniff deeply and kiss, tickling me with his moustache. It would set us off laughing as though everything were all right."

The scene in which Nuri sees his father for the last time is played for special poignance. "Father opened his umbrella and it covered us both. I wanted everything good in the world for him: every dream he had, all of his secret plans, to come true. I suddenly was glad that Mona was his." This cuts deeply, as Nuri's resentment of his father's relationship with Mona, many years his junior, has been the driving force of the novel so far.

Mona is a half-English half-Arabic beauty, spotted at the poolside in the family's usual summer resort. "So very few non-Arabs speak Arabic that when you encounter one it is as thrilling as spotting a friend in the audience of a vast theatre just before the lights go down." Nuri is the first to befriend her. He is devastated when his father takes her for himself; the realisation is as subtly handled as it is powerful: "They sat facing the sea. Their hands were resting side by side on the dry sand, his little finger over her little finger. I tried to imagine friends doing that." We are reminded that Nuri is still a little boy, that this is his first love. When he wanders into Mona in the shower it is because his ball has rolled into her room. When Kamal catches him brushing her hair, Nuri is despatched to a depressing private school in the north of England.

Fittingly for a novel about absence, Matar's prose focuses on silence with unusual frequency and acuity. It may do the prose a disservice to catalogue these moments: they are original and delicate enough never to seem heavy handed. More than one character's inner life is revealed through them speaking "after too long a delay". A celebrated singer has lost her voice. In a moment of emotional urgency, Nuri's uncle "took hold of my hand as if we were about to cross a main road", but says nothing. Nobody will talk about the most important things, whether through forbearance or genuine lack of knowledge.

Late in the novel Nuri slips into present tense for just two sentences: "The point is I don't believe father is dead. But I don't believe he is alive either." We leave him waiting, well-educated (a PhD in Art History) thanks to his generous inheritance and about to continue his life, but necessarily in a kind of limbo. Is he apolitical or does his character diagnose an all pervading, generational apathy? His father forbids him from studying politics or economics or anything of the kind, insisting that such things are best learnt about in real life. Perhaps Nuri's passivity is more a horrified disengagement from the political - the realm of the kidnapper, the radical for whom the ends justify the means, however terrible. Most of us want to get on with our lives unthreatened by those capable of such acts, and it's only when "getting on" itself is under threat that we look to our great and terrible heroes. Kamal Pasha made things happen, "watched history march and worked to change its course", and was perhaps in a unique position to do so. Denied any such agency (or choosing to ignore it), Nuri's generation replaced political with sexual obsession.

Of course, in an irony outside Matar's control, the novel arrives just as a sense of political daring returns to the youth of the Middle East. But that does nothing to undermine its power as a sort of chronicle of the dead years. Moving and impressively concise, what ultimately sets Anatomy of a Disappearance apart and makes it something of a modern classic is not just the universality of loss, but the deep humanity of Matar's prose: "Mona put her thumb and her index finger in her mouth and whistled loudly. I wished I could do that. And ever since I have looked up to people who can as a kind of elite."

Luke Kennard's third poetry collection, The Migraine Hotel, is published by Salt.