Sunday, November 23, 2008

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

In the Country of Men takes place in Libya, in the 1970's. This is a time and place that I know very little about, but the scope of this novel is not very wide, and the narrator gives a full picture of his world. The narrator is nine-year-old Suleiman, describing the summer when his father's rejection of ruling government brings his family much pain. Suleiman understands very little of what is going on, and so as a reader who does not know very much about this time period, I also did not understand much. Matar does an excellent job of keeping the story within what a nine-year-old would be able to grasp, yet allowing for enough hints to give the reader a better understanding.
The hardest part about reading this book was watching Suleiman's moral deterioration. He is incapable of acting in the adult ways that his parents expect, and he begins to strike out at his friends and family as a way to try to regain control of his environment. He knows that the way he is behaving is wrong, but he just wants attention, and possibly appreciation from anyone, even if that means betraying his family and himself. The rest of his life is colored by this one summer, but it seems that in the end, his own actions have little effect on his life. It is the bigger changes, the trouble his father brings on them and what his mother does as a result of it, that truly alter the course of his life.
It would be interesting to pair this book with one or two non-fiction titles about the political situation in Libya at this point in time. As with many books that I read, I feel like I miss something when I don't know the whole background that the author is writing from. This book is an interesting read even without that understanding, however, it makes me realize how little I really know.

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