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In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
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In the Country of Men (original 2006; edition 2007)

by Hisham Matar

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Member:petercasier
Title:In the Country of Men
Authors:Hisham Matar
Info:The Dial Press (2007), Hardcover, 256 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
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In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (2006)

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English (43)  Dutch (2)  Norwegian (1)  Greek (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (48)
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Suleiman, an only child, remembers the events from the summer of 1979 in Libya when everything changed for his family. Suleiman, affectionately known as Slooma, was nine years old that summer – old enough to know that something was wrong, but not old enough to understand what was happening. Slooma's father held the wrong political views, which didn't bode well for his health or longevity under the Qaddafi regime. Slooma's mother was often “ill” when his father was away. While “ill”, she would confide her resentment of her early forced marriage to her son, adding a weight of responsibility too heavy for a 9-year-old to bear. When the adults in his life fail to explain what is happening to Slooma, he draws his own conclusions, some of which have disastrous consequences.

While the culture and setting will be unfamiliar to many readers, Slooma's dysfunctional family situation will be all too familiar for some. Slooma's fears, the responsibility he feels for taking care of his mother during her bouts of “illness”, and his exposure to violence eventually affect his behavior. I alternated between sympathy and revulsion as Slooma began to act cruelly toward those who were weaker than he was. I think the fact that he manages to portray Slooma as both a victim and, more subtly, as an abuser says something about Matar's skill as a writer. ( )
1 vote cbl_tn | Sep 13, 2013 |
I liked this overall--with a mild kept-reading-to-the-end liking, but I couldn't love it as I wanted to. The reason being I think just about the most unlikable child protagonist I've encountered in literature. The story is set in Qaddafi's Libya in 1979, and I did love how Matar rendered the setting--everything from the political to the personal to the foods and literature consumed. I came out of the book feeling I had a good sense what it was like growing up in that place and time. The writing was vivid, brought the place and people and events to life in a very realistic, gritty, often brutal way.

The problem was Suleiman, the nine-year-old boy through which we see the events of this story. One review called him "a little shit" and it's apt. OK, he's a little boy--one might say just an ordinary one and that one should cut him some slack. I had no problem with identifying with the fear of the boy in Hosseini's The Kite Runner and how it caused him to feel guilt for not saving his friend, and that book I found tremendously moving. But even for nine-years-old, Suleiman acted in ways not just cowardly but monumentally stupid--worse, he acted in ways malicious and treacherous. I felt a lot more sympathy for his mother, forced into marriage with his father when she was fourteen years old. The whole Scheherazade motif in the novel did work for me, and I felt for her broken dreams. It wasn't hard to feel for the boy's father either, taking risks to try to bring democracy to his country. But the boy? No. Maybe it made it worse that this wasn't just written in first person, but actually from the point of view of the adult Suleiman, and I just didn't get any sense of guilt or regret--he seemed to have learned nothing. ( )
  LisaMaria_C | Jun 25, 2013 |
I'm normally not a fan of historical fiction, but as a world literature lover, I couldn't help but try this one. Even though it was a little difficult to get into, I am so, so glad I did.

In the Country of Men is a gripping account, from a small boy's perspective, of Gaddafi's infamous terror regime. It shimmers in the triumphs and fumes in the horrors of the the Libyan revolution of 1979, and expertly depicts Libyan culture and customs—the entire "world full of men and the greed of men"—as well. I found this a shocking, affecting read, and be forewarned: this book hits hard and will leave bruises.

There are a several difficult issues tackled in Suleiman's first-person narrative, each coated with a blasé haze of childish charm. The exterior ones among these, include gender inequality and societal persecution, but Hisham Matar dares to venture deeper as the story spins around the values of family, friendship, nationalism, and the definition of loyalty. He portrays in deliberate precision and indelicacy, the oppression of not only women, but also of humans and human rights; this is all poignant, truthful, and startlingly refreshing.

Facets of the narrator's childhood make him the most vulnerable, and yet most potent character. Most of the other characters are shallow or, as with the central themes, influenced by Suleiman's innocence and lack of awareness, but they are nevertheless lyrically and memorably described.

I'll admit this book was a bit slow for first half, but the second half blew me away. In the Country of Men is not the sort of book I'll soon forget. Hisham Matar has woven a brilliant novel on what it is to be family, what it means to grow up, and what it takes to be free, because they are all—the author claims—achievable aspirations... but only to few, in the land of men.

Pros: Raw, uncensored // Stunning literary style with both graceful and repulsive notes // Fascinating perspective of Gaddafi's Libya // Impressive stylistically, historically, and culturally // Mesmerizing and haunting // Unforgettable

Cons: Slow-moving start // Dry at times

Love: I am in love with the way Matar writes:
"If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love."

"Grief loves the hollow, all it wants is to hear its own echo. Be careful."

"[In me], there is this void, this emptiness I am trying to get at like someone frightened of the dark, searching for a match to strike. I see it in others, this emptiness. My expression shifts constantly, like that of a prostitute who waits in your car while you run across a busy road to buy a new pack of cigarettes for the night. When you walk back, ripping the cellophane, before she has time to see you, you catch sight of her, temporarily settled in another role as a sister or a wife or a friend. How readily and thinly we procure these fictional selves, deceiving the world and what we might have become if only we hadn't got in the way, if only we had waited to see what might have become of us."

Verdict: Hisham Matar's literary debut glitters in the backdrop of 1979 Tripoli and lingers in the yearning mind. Every so often you pick up a book so resonating and so captive of emotional truth, that it sends shivers down your spine and leaves an ache in your chest. In the Country of Men is one of those books.

Rating: 8 out of 10 hearts (4 stars): An engaging read; highly recommended.

Source: Complimentary copy provided by TripFiction in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you!). ( )
1 vote stephanieloves | May 21, 2013 |
A very impressive read.
This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while already and now I've read it, I'm not quite sure why. It may have been the combination of 'Africa' and view from child, I don't know.

What I do know is, that it was a great read. Emotional, oppressive, impressive, a very clear book about the way people live(d) in Libya at the end of the 70's, early 80's. Suspicion, fear, totalitarian regime. Reading as an adult, I got that from the beginning of the book. Having heared stories about East-Germany, the Soviet Union, visiting these countries just after the fall of the wall, reading this book made me feel like I was back in Eastern Europe / Russia again.

From the point of view of a child it is all very blurry. Parents should be trusted, but what if they keep secrets? (They need to, because if the child tells, their lives are at stake.) The child sees only that his mother's taking medicine when his father is on business trips. He has no clue why the telephone line is echoing, why there's suddenly a big portrait of Khadaffi on their wall.

The child is eventually sent abroad, to have a better life. But even that is in vain: when a few years later all comes together, things didn't turn out as bad as they had feared.

Does the book have a good ending or a bad ending? I'm not sure. I think it is somewhere in the middle. Some things turned out well (Suleiman studies well and has a job), other things not so well (his father dies, he's still alone, abroad).
Despite it is fiction, I still have the feeling that I read a book that could have been true. It was very impressive. ( )
  BoekenTrol71 | Apr 27, 2013 |
It is difficult to empathize with the damaged boy at the centre of this story. Set in Gaddafi's Libya, the boy becomes inevitably complicit in the brutality and betrayal that permeate his life. The problem is that one does not sense any resistance to this complicity, he just seems hollow and reactive. The one compelling character in the novel is the boy's 23 year old mother, who in spite being victimized in just about every conceivable way, still manages, in this miserable country of men, to behave honourably. ( )
  maritimer | Apr 17, 2013 |
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I am recalling now that last summer before I was sent away.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"Publishing History:
Viking UK hardcover edition published 2006
Dial Press hardcover edition / February 2007" T.p. verso.
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Book description
On a white-hot day in Tripoli, Libya, in the summer of 1979, nine-year-old Suleiman is shopping in the market square with his mother. His father is away on business - but Suleiman is sure he has just seen him, standing across the street in a pair of dark glasses. But whiy isn't he waving? And why doesn't he come over when he knows Suleiman's mother is falling apart?

Whispers and fears intensify around Suleiman: his best friend's father disappears and is next seen being interrogated on state television; a man parks his car outside the house every day and asks strange questions; and his mother frantically burns his father's books. As Suleiman begins to wonder whether his father has disappeared for good, it feels as if the wall of his home will break with the secrets that are being held within.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385340435, Paperback)

Libya, 1979. Nine-year-old Suleiman’s days are circumscribed by the narrow rituals of childhood: outings to the ruins surrounding Tripoli, games with friends played under the burning sun, exotic gifts from his father’s constant business trips abroad. But his nights have come to revolve around his mother’s increasingly disturbing bedside stories full of old family bitterness. And then one day Suleiman sees his father across the square of a busy marketplace, his face wrapped in a pair of dark sunglasses. Wasn’t he supposed to be away on business yet again? Why is he going into that strange building with the green shutters? Why did he lie?

Suleiman is soon caught up in a world he cannot hope to understand—where the sound of the telephone ringing becomes a portent of grave danger; where his mother frantically burns his father’s cherished books; where a stranger full of sinister questions sits outside in a parked car all day; where his best friend’s father can disappear overnight, next to be seen publicly interrogated on state television.

In the Country of Men is a stunning depiction of a child confronted with the private fallout of a public nightmare. But above all, it is a debut of rare insight and literary grace.


From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:04:31 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

In 1979 Libya, nine-year-old Suleiman endures his mother's increasingly disturbing bedside stories full of old family bitterness. His father is away on business (again), and Suleiman is soon caught up in a world he cannot hope to understand in this novel that offers a stunning depiction of a child confronted with the private fallout of a public nightmare.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 8 descriptions

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