‘In the Country of Men’ is the debut novel from Libyan author Hisham Matar. It is a retrospective novel told by the adult voice Suleiman, reflecting and recalling his life as a nine year old boy living in Tripoli, trying to make sense of the controversial and dangerous world in which he is brought up.
The character of Suleiman is extremely controversial. At times, I felt, that he deserved sympathy as he is neglected by his father who is constantly on ‘business trips’ (ie running the revolt againt Gaddafi’s oppressive regime). This negligent relationship arguably forces Suleiman to grow up far too early and to see the sinful and frightening side of man (through the broadcasted interogations and executions) too soon at the age of just 9. His desire to be a child escapes when he is able to play in his workshop on the roof when the rest of the neighbourhood have their afternoon naps. However, there is definately something darker within him, causing him to lash out on his friend and cause suffering. When he calls the father of Kareem, his closest friend at the start of the novel, a ‘Tr-‘, the idea that he was about to call his friend’s father a traitor shows brutality but also highlights, in my view, one of the key themes to the novel : betrayl. He betrays his friend’s trust and kindness. One of the issues raised for me in this story was the idea of Nature vs Nurture: if Suleiman is cruel and unkind, should he be to blame or his childhood, upbringing and experiences?
I found the symbol of the mullberries extremely original and creative. This is hardly surprising once you become aware of the fact that Matar wrote this book as a result of imagining the mullberry scene. The mullberries are perhaps that trigger to the genius of this novel. Suleiman and his family live on Mullberry road, yet as the time passed only one remained. Suleiman constantly refers to mullberries as being gifts from heaven after a story he is told by his mother and concludes they are ‘the best fruits God has created’. In the first scene with the mullberries Suleiman eats ‘another then another’ until he makes himself ill either from the fruit or the heat. This almost crazed consumption perhaps shows his need for nurturing, but also reflects his mother’s alchol addiction (or ‘illness’ as the nine year old sees it with vodka for ‘medicine’).
During this episode, the beggar Bahloul shouts ‘I see you, I see you’ at Suleiman. This causes Suleiman to question himself, is it stealing to eat the fruit from his neighbour’s garden? His answer: ‘I wasn’t sure’. Does this reflect the lack of moral structure this boy has from being brought up in a world of corruption and chaos? The almost omniscient role of the blind beggar shows irony as it is he who ‘sees’ the sin clearer than any of the other characters. Perhaps Matar is saying that those with least, living in poverty, are wisest as possessions and greed can not cloud their judgement.
After Baba, Suleiman’s father, returns from being tortured by the Revolutionary Committee, Suleiman takes his father to the Mullberry tree to find the Committee workers had been using it to ‘put their cigarettes out’. This image conveys how man have taken something pure and in Suleiman’s view holy (as the Angel’s gave them to us) and made it rotten and ‘disgusting’. Is Matar trying to show how the society in which he lives had been ruined and polluted by the sin of man? Or is this simply some fruit gone bad, with nothing more intended?
‘In the Country of Men’ clearly shows the dominance men have over the females in this book. The clearest example of this is when Suleiman’s mother was forced into marriage at the age of 14. She was suspected of being impure, so they tested her virginity. Possible outcomes for this little girl: Being shot by her Uncle for losing her purity or being forced into a marriage with a man nearly ten years older than her as she was found suitable. Either way, her fate was not her own and she had so little power. This type of culture shocked me as a female in modern society. It is almost impossible to imagine myself in this situation, and it horrifies me that it not only happened in 1970’s in this culture, but that it is still acceptable in many belief systems across the world.
This book is both gripping and insightful. It’s multi-layered so the reader can make their individual judgements and views. I would reccomend it.