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In the Country of Men
By Hisham Matar
Proust had his madeleines, Studs Terkel his afternoon Scotch and, judging by the shroud he creates over just one cup of coffee, cigarettes seem to jog Hisham Matar's memory.
Sitting in a cafe in London's tony Holland Park neighborhood, the 37-year-old novelist quickly burns through half a pack, his thoughts rising in cozy plumes.
"I remember New York," says Matar, who was born in Manhattan, his father then an employee of the United Nations. "I remember driving downtown in a car and looking up at the tops of buildings. I must have been very young."
As with so much else Matar says, the memory materializes from the past, gauzily lit and more than a little poignant.
A similar feeling hangs over Matar's prize-winning debut In the Country of Men, the story of a young boy named Suleiman, who comes of age in Libya in the 1970s when men were disappeared for speaking their minds.
Over the course of the novel, Suleiman's loyalties are wrenched to the breaking point. His mother is a secret drinker, and his father is involved in something dangerous, something maybe even recklessly political.
The book was published in Britain last year, where it was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the Guardian First Book Prize. Matar was endlessly profiled, and nearly all of the interviews made one key assumption - that the book was autobiographical.
"At first it made me angry, it felt like a very crude way to read this book, but I gradually began to feel more detached," Matar says calmly.
A part of him understands why the assumption is made.
Matar returned to Libya at age four, and lived there until he was nearly nine. His family left the country when his father's name appeared on a list of dissidents. The family almost didn't make it out safely.
They eventually immigrated to Kenya, and from there, like Suleiman's family, to Cairo, where all was fine. Until one day in 1990, when Matar was a student in England, a knock came at his family's door in Cairo.
Minus two pieces of communication smuggled out of a Libyan prison, Matar's father has not been heard from since.
The cliche here would be that this experience made Matar a writer - but as he explains, he was a writer from a very young age. "I was always entertaining people with my little poems and stories," he says. An uncle was a poet. Matar's father was something of an intellectual and a cosmopolitan.
Although he hasn't lived in the Middle East for two decades, Matar seems to be a traveling example of its cafe culture. He often answers a question by darting sideways into memory, or backward into the literary labyrinths of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Matar began his novel nearly 10 years ago as a poem, and as he speaks, it's clear he still thinks of poetry as the higher form. "In the Middle East, poets are revered," he says. "There are Libyan poets who have sold millions of copies but who aren't even heard of elsewhere."
Matar has maintained this affinity for poets. During the final stretch of writing the book, he and his wife, an American photographer, moved to Paris where he was befriended by Pulitzer Prize winners C.K. Williams and Mark Strand.
"I went to a reading and both of them were there, and I liked Strand's poetry so much I just decided to ask him for an interview. Strand said to the person beside him, 'He wants to interview me for an Arabic newspaper!'"
Although Matar grew up speaking Arabic, he writes in English now - not quite an exile from language, but still not entirely at home. "It's sort of like a suit you put on that fits you - it's not quite your body but it feels right."
Matar feels similarly about England. Born in New York, raised in Tripoli and Egypt, and married to an American, he has been exiled many times over.
When he goes back to visit his family in Cairo, he watches as his adopted culture infiltrates the one he left behind.
"It's funny you can see how certain words are often used in English. Words like quality or efficiency or accountability." He lets out a laugh. "All things you find missing from the Middle East!"
This world-weary humor is characteristic of Matar's approach to politics. He would rather talk about the work of Javier Marias than fulminate over Gaddafi, who in spite of the deep gouges he left in the lives of families like Matar's, has been resurrected in the West as a friend in the "war on terror."
"I sometimes wonder if someone like me can be an artist," Matar says. "It's a serious question. Is it possible for me to write outside the political?"
Matar believes there is enough mystery in writing to mean he'll never know the answer to this question. He is comfortable with this unknowingness, as he is with so many other open-ended questions.
"My father loved New York and Rome. He used to say, 'Rome is for people who know what they want and are comfortable with it. New York is for those who have no idea what they want.'
"I've always aspired to be a Roman," he says with a smile that shows he knows the chances of that occurring are quite small, especially when the territory of memory remains so rich, so large, so dark and, as yet, so unexplored.
The writer is president of the National Book Critics Circle.