The Return by Hisham Matar
In 2011, the novelist Hisham Matar travelled to Libya, the country he’d left as a child three decades earlier. Colonel Gaddafi was dead, and the country was on the brink of momentous reform. Yet Matar was really there on “other business”, said David Aaronovitch in The Times: to discover “the truth about his father”. In this “magnificent” memoir, Matar describes his anguished search for Jaballa Matar, a prominent anti-Gaddafi activist who’d been abducted in Cairo in 1990 and imprisoned in Tripoli’s notorious Abu Salim jail. During his early years in prison, Jaballa had smuggled letters out to his family, but in the mid-1990s his communications had ceased. His son did “everything he could” to find out what had happened, taking up the cause with the UK government, even meeting Gaddafi’s son Saif. But his search was unsuccessful. Matar had come to realise that his father was almost certainly dead. Gaddafi’s downfall, however, gave him a new opportunity to uncover the truth.
Jaballa Matar was a remarkable, “highly cultured” man, said Horatio Clare in The Spectator. A soldier and a diplomat, he briefly worked for Gaddafi after his 1969 coup, but resigned when the dictator’s “nature became clear”, and went on to build “a fortune importing goods into the Middle East”. His opposition to the regime eventually forced him to flee to Cairo, from where he plotted Gaddafi’s overthrow. By 1990 he had “sleeper cells in place in Libya”. But then the Egyptian government “betrayed” him, and sent him back to Libya. This memoir is “astonishing for its perception, control and technical excellence”, and is also, at times, “unbearably moving”.
By the book’s end, Matar knows what happened to his father, said Boyd Tonkin in the Financial Times: he “almost certainly perished during the Abu Salim prison massacres in Tripoli on 29 June 1996”, during which some 1,270 prisoners are thought to have been shot. Afterwards their bodies were left for three or four days, until the smell caused the surviving prisoners to vomit. Checking his diaries, Matar realises that, on that very day, he had visited his “beloved” National Gallery in London and spent a long time gazing at Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian – an “iconic picture of a political killing”. In The Return, Matar has created a “work of art” that “bears unforgettable witness to love, to courage and to humanit