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Languor, loss in a city by the sea

HISHAM MATAR (diana matar)

In the Country of Men
By Hisham Matar
Dial, 246 pp., $22

Reading Hisham Matar's novel, his first, during the weekend of Saddam Hussein's execution led to unsettling images of what his early years terrifying Iraq must have been like; only here that country is Libya, the despot Colonel Khadafy, and the unsettlement is greater because, as was never the case with Saddam, we have been lulled over recent years to see Khadafy (a.k.a. "the Guide") as more an eccentric, perhaps, than a brute; which he certainly was and, really, must still be.

The novel is called "In the Country of Men," which is one of its ironies, for although like any closed Islamic society Libya is superficially a man's kingdom, the novel's chief figures are an unbalanced mother and her son , the narrator Suleiman, a joyless, irritating boy of 9 whose father is absent most of the time on business, although it appears that "business" includes some sort of counter revolutionary activity. One neighbor is taken by the secret police, an outfit in which another neighbor, Jafer, whose smirking, officious wife insinuates herself about the street, is highly placed. All live in a sun-washed corner of the capital , Tripoli, which, we are often reminded, is a city on the sea. Sometimes it seems that the sea, visible from Suleiman's rooftop hideaway, offers the only relief: Within the dull totalitarian sameness that is both foreboding and boring, at least "the sea changes every day."

Suleiman's mother does not change: a case of a moody woman whose draining quality, even if mixed equally with lovingness and affection, is unvarying. Married forcibly to her husband at 15, she has spent the years up until now mostly recoiling from or disliking him but is frightened of what fate might befall him. This is one of many shrewd psychological tendencies picked up by Matar: When one has always been dependent -- Mama is "captive in her own home, continually failing to prepare herself for anything else" -- even an undesired husband has protective value.

In turn she must protect her son, who by always worrying about her has not learned what to prize in her and what to avoid, or avoid thinking about. Matar has written a novel where no one is likable; Suleiman dreams, betrays his friends , but spends most time on his own; he misses his Baba but almost betrays him, too. The prose, meant to reflect his interior monologue in all its never-to-be-shared sensuousness, feels like a constant swooning; as if Suleiman is always near fainting or dizzy with the vertigo of a low-slung place by the sea. It is not the language of 9-year-olds but perhaps how a young man recalls an inarticulate, unredeemed age, and indeed near the end we discover that's how it works here.

Such a book sounds humorless; actually it is not. There is a "good trick" one learns for Muslims: Whenever they are angry, "ask them to praise the Prophet and they have to stop yelling or crying and praise." This proves to be the most effective means of dealing with Suleiman's mother. Totalitarianism supplies abundant reason for comedy. There is, as a first defense against rumors, the hanging in Baba's house of the Guide's framed portrait , and later government phone-tappers who interrupt conversations. Similarly amateurish, and low tech, is a televised show confession and soon something worse where several times the picture is replaced suddenly by a still photograph of pink flowers.

Matar's own story echoes Suleiman's although not in crucial details; while the author , too , was born in 1970 and went to Egypt at 9, he fled with his parents; later Matar's father was kidnapped and disappeared. His fate is unknown.

In a recent interview Matar echoed Orwell's rather unconvincing line that if not for the violence of the age he would have been a flowery writer of "ornate or merely descriptive books . . . unaware of my political loyalties." Matar told The Observer that he "would have liked to write a book that had nothing to do with politics," that "ultimately I am a sensualist and an aesthete."

That is a less disingenuous remark than Orwell's. "In the Country of Men" has dissidents but no politics, not even Khadafy's: It is as if the author, so involved in the interior reeling mind and exterior abused body, can describe nothing that is outside the purest individual self. This is not a handicap for a writer who knows his limits, but it does raise the question of how significant this book would be if it were simply a child's story of unhappy parents and solitary life as he only just begins to perceive "that my influence in this world might not be as insignificant as I had thought." Everything about "In the Country of Men" is competent, although only as we learn something about Libya is it gripping. More and more one feels that when all stories have been told, the only thing left is place, and time: skills of journalism as much as of literary aesthetics.

Eric Weinberger teaches expository writing at Harvard University.

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