Hisham Matar

"Anatomy of a Disappearance"

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We hear from Libyan author Hisham Matar about the revolution in his native country and his father's disappearance under Moammar Ghadafi, a subject he takes on in his latest novel: Anatomy of a Disappearance.

The following excerpt is from Chapter 1 of the book.

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There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy
as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I can barely
recall the exact features of his face and must bring out
the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the
drawer of my bedside table. There has not been a day
since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have
not been searching for him, looking in the most
unlikely places. Everything and everyone, existence
itself, has become an evocation, a possibility for resemblance.
Perhaps this is what is meant by that brief and
now almost archaic word: elegy.

I do not see him in the mirror but feel him adjusting,
as if he were twisting within a shirt that nearly fits. My
father has always been intimately mysterious even when
he was present. I can almost imagine how it might have
been coming to him as an equal, as a friend, but not quite.

My father disappeared in 1972, at the beginning of my
school Christmas holiday, when I was fourteen. Mona
and I were staying at the Montreux Palace, taking
breakfast  – I with my large glass of bright orange
juice, and she with her steaming black tea – on the
terrace overlooking the steel-blue surface of Lake
Geneva, at the other end of which, beyond the hills
and the bending waters, lay the now vacant city of
Geneva. I was watching the silent paragliders hover
above the still lake, and she was paging through La
Tribune de Genève, when suddenly her hand rose to her
mouth and trembled.

A few minutes later we were aboard a train, hardly
speaking, passing the newspaper back and forth.

We collected from the police station the few
belongings that were left on the bedside table. When I
unsealed the small plastic bag, along with the tobacco
and the lighter flint, I smelled him. That same watch is
now wrapped round my wrist, and even today, after all
these years, when I press the underside of the leather
strap against my nostrils I can detect a whiff of him.

I wonder now how different my story would have
been were Mona’s hands unbeautiful, her fingertips

I still, all of these years later, hear the same childish
persistence, ‘I saw her first,’ which bounced like a
devil on my tongue whenever I caught one of Father’s
claiming gestures: his fingers sinking into her hair,
his  hand landing on her skirted thigh with the ab-
sentmindedness of a man touching his earlobe in
mid-sentence. He had taken to the Western habit of
holding hands, kissing, embracing in public. But he
could not fool me; like a bad actor, he seemed unsure
of his steps. Whenever he would catch me watching
him, he would look away and I swear I could see
colour in his cheeks. A dark tenderness rises in me
now as I think how hard he had tried; how I yearn still
for an easy sympathy with my father. Our relationship
lacked what I have always believed possible, given
time, and perhaps after I had become a man, after he
had seen me become a father: a kind of emotional
eloquence and ease. But now the distances that had
then governed our interactions and cut a quiet gap
between us continue to shape him in my thoughts.

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar
Copyright Hisham Matar, 2011
All rights reserved
Penguin Books Ltd

In the following video, Matar reads from his book.


For more information on Hisham Matar and Anatomy of a Disappearance, please visit the links below.

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