In March 1990, 19-year-old Hisham Matar’s father, a Libyan dissident, was spirited away from Cairo by Egyptian secret police and passed on to the Libyans, according to his son. His fate remains obscure.
Matar mined that uncertainty to poignant effect in his first novel, “In the Country of Men,” a 2006 Man Booker Prize finalist, and it defines his mesmerizing second novel, “Anatomy of a Disappearance,” which describes the effect of a man’s kidnapping on his son.
“Anatomy’’ is set in 1970s Geneva, London and Cairo, where 12-year-old Nuri lives alone with his father, Kamal. He is still adjusting to the silence that filled their apartment after his mother’s death when they meet Mona at the swimming pool.
From his first glimpse of her in a yellow swimsuit, Nuri is smitten. Shortly afterwards Mona marries his father, and Nuri, grappling with a jealousy he can barely articulate, is sent to boarding school in England.
Mystery fogs this pared-down novel. Very little is made explicit, including Kamal’s past in an unspecified Arab country. We learn only that he was a royal adviser who shifted to the left after revolution shook the nation and eventually fled to Egypt.
When he is abducted from the bed of another woman in Switzerland, operatives from his nameless native country are blamed, though nothing is proven.
Only Nuri’s feelings for his vanished father are probed with the precision promised by the novel’s title. As months turn to years and still no news arrives, sorrow is compounded by fear and anger. Later, guilt takes over -- the tender guilt of Nuri’s “not knowing how to find him or take his place.’’
The same recent events that have lent topicality to this elegiac novel might easily have swamped a lesser work. Its strength rests in Matar’s decision to focus on emotional rather than material details, proving that in art, at least, the personal can trump the political.
“Anatomy of a Disappearance” is published in the U.K. by Viking and will published in the U.S. on Aug. 23 by the Dial Press (224 pages, $22, 16.99 pounds.) To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)