The Return by Hisham Matar

A beautifully written memoir by a man whose life has been steeped in exile. The narrative follows his 2012 return to Libya — the first time he has set foot in the country since his family fled in 1979 when he was eight. Living primarily in England, he has been constantly trying to find out what happened to his father, Jaballa Matar, who “disappeared” in 1990 at the height of Qaddafi’s reign of terror. Flashbacks to childhood, his father’s disappearance, and the persistent and largely unfulfilled quest for information comprise most of the text. Various family artifacts and conversations introduce even more history — his grandfather’s arrest and escape in the time of Mussolini, short stories written by his father as a young man, and interviews with those who had memories of his father in prison.

This is a memoir, not an objective work; however it is steeped in the history of the region. The personal is an overlay on the political and social history of Libya from the Italian invasion of 1911 through the present. I found it very helpful to jot down a timeline of events as they are delivered when relevant to his thinking / discovery / memory, rather than in any chronological order. The personal reflection is profound — he grows up almost entirely away from the place and people he calls home, in the shadow of an absent father who is either hero or traitor depending on who is doing the talking. His prose is vivid, but not overly emotionalized. The description of the politics and bureaucracy involved in even trying to find out whether or not his father is still alive is stunning — in the literal sense of the word.

Pulitzer Prize winner! Definitely worth reading.

Some quotes:
“There is no country where the oppressed and the oppressor are so intertwined as in Libya.”

“That slightly stifled gait all political prisoners have. As though oppression were toxic sediment that lingered in the muscles.”

“They were a gift sent back through time, opening a window onto the interior landscape of the young man who was to become my father.”

“Guilt is exile’s eternal companion. It stains every departure.”