More than a Return

I’ve been a subscriber to the New Yorker for a few years now. When I first started reading it, I’d go through every issue cover-to-cover; but of late, for whatever reason, I haven’t been going through it with as much zeal as I once did, and I was getting backlogged.

Then they go and drop this thing on me:

The article is, sadly, behind their paywall, so if you’re not a New Yorker subscriber and don’t know any elaborate ways around the wall, you’re out of luck. But pieces like this are the epitome of what a personal essay should be. It took me a long time to read it, as I was zoning in and out, my mind racing off on tangents spurred by the deep insights and elegant prose.

The author is Hisham Matar, a Libyan novelist who has spent most of his life in exile, and he has penned a gorgeous meditation on his messy relationship with his homeland, and the father it took from him. He recalls his father’s words following the family’s flight from Libya and the terrors of the Qaddafi regime:

I demanded to be returned to my country. My mother tried to console me. “Leave him be,” Father told her. “He’ll get used to it.” It was the cruellest thing he had ever said. Cruel and nearly true. Even then I knew, more from the voice than from the words, and also from the way he stood, not facing me, that he, too, was mourning the loss. There is a moment when you realize that you and your parent are not the same person, and it usually occurs when you are both consumed by a similar emotion.

That emotion later drove Matar’s father to return to his country and lead a rebellion against Qaddafi. He was imprisoned, and his family did not hear from him after 1996. He was missing, and presumed dead. But when Qaddafi fell in 2011, Matar and his brother are inevitably drawn back in search of closure. On his return trip to Libya after 33 years in Europe and the U.S., he writes:

This was the chasm that divided the man from the eight-year-old boy I was when my family left. The plane was going to cross that gulf. Surely such journeys were reckless. This one could rob me of a skill that I have worked hard to cultivate: how to live away from places and people I love. Joseph Brodsky was right. So were Nabokov and Conrad: artists who never returned. Each had tried, in his own way, to cure himself of his country. What you have left behind has dissolved. Return and you will face the absence or the defacement of what you treasured. But Dmitri Shostakovich and Boris Pasternak and Naguib Mahfouz were also right; never leave the homeland. Leave and your connections to the source will be severed. You will be like a dead trunk, hard and hollow.

What can you do when you cannot leave and cannot return?

But still, Matar must return. He must know. “I envy the finality of funerals,” he writes. “Whenever I hear of someone in Iraq, in Argentina, or now in Libya finding the bones of his disappeared scattered in a mass grave, I covet the certainty. How it must be to wrap one’s hands around the bones, to choose how to place them, to be able to pat the patch of earth and sing a prayer.”

What does Matar find when he goes home? Many things, all of them difficult to understand, and few offering anything in the way of closure. But, in the end, perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing.

Read the whole piece, if you can. Matar’s novels are definitely going on my reading list.