Anatomy Of A Disappearance
- Penguin Books Ltd
- Publication Date:
- 01 March 2012
- Modern & Contemporary
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Hidden depths.I read this for a recent book group. I enjoyed it, taking it purely at face value. I then discussed it within our group, several of whom were of Arab origin, and suddenly I discovered whole new levels of the story that made sense to my Arab friends but which had completely passed me by. Yet I didn't detect the more floral language of an Arab writer in the narrative, it didn't have the feel, to me, of a book by an Arab writer.The story is told by Nuri, just twelve when it begins with his encounter with the enigmatic Mona on a hotel beach in Egypt. Although Nuri has a teenage crush on Mona, it is his father whom she eventually marries. Thus begins a complicated relationship between the three of them, which is dramatically affected by the disappearance of Nuri's father whilst holidaying in Switzerland.Much of this story is semi-autobiographical, Mr Matar's own father was abducted from the family's Cairo home by Egypt's Mukhabarat, handed over to the Libyan government and imprisoned in Abu Salim prison. He has not been heard from since a letter smuggled out in 1995. Hisham Matar must be well aware of the angst this causes a teenage boy, the terrible lack of closure caused by the unknown.The characterisations are excellent, particularly that of Nuri. The pace of the novel reflects the feelings of a slightly introverted young boy as he is forced to come to terms with the loss of his father. Also very topical with the events that have unfolded recently in Libya.
Parents are like gods to their children, immortal. However, when they die, or in this case disappear, it leaves a gaping hole. Nuri is 12 when his mother dies. Only a few years later, his father disappears. At such a young age, it is difficult, if not impossible to reconstruct who his parents were when he never knows them as an adult. He is always kept in the dark of who they were. He doesn’t even know what his mother dies of or of what his father did for the King of Egypt. Realizing who they are after his father’s disappearance provides the most powerful aspects to the book. Most of the book focuses on Nuri’s obsession with Mona, his step-mother. He meets her on a beach in Alexandria. Much of his adolescence is spent obsessing over her, in some cases, dreaming of being with her without his father. When his father is mysteriously abducted many truths about Mona, his mother, and his father are revealed. I was originally under the impression that this story was timely due to the Arab Spring revolutions this year, highlighting the difficult environment of regime change and the resulting disappearance of loved ones. However, these events can take place anywhere. It could be Egypt, Iraq, Libya, or Chile, Mexico, Guatemala. It unites all these stories into one story of loss and searching. Maybe that is the intention, when someone disappears, not dies, but vanishes, how to deal with that loss. The feeling drives the narrative. A confused son with a missing father, who is trying to make sense of what happened, who he is, and who he is going to be. Common problems for any young man made more confusing with a lost father and only a young step-mother to look out for you. A stepmother whose involvement may have doomed the father and the son. A great narrative and emotional storytelling, but the background circumstances feel very generic. Favorite Passages:"All that I did not know about my father- his private life, his thoughts, why he was kidnapped and by whom, what he had actually done to provoke such actions, where he was at this moment, whether he could be counted among the living or the dead- was like a mask that suffocated me." p. 101"But the most significant yet subtle change was in the eyes. The had become less certain, more wary. He seemed to have given way to the inevitability of his doubts." p. 183"I felt dizzy, as if comprehending the scale of things, for the first time and with it the vast yet intricate reality of the physical world and my precarious presence in it. I held my head and stared at the blades of grass at my feet. I counted the stiches round the leather of my shoes. I wanted this world to still. I wanted to fix it and be fixed within it. But everything was on the move, the clouds, the wind." p. 186"You see, most men spend a lifetime trying to understand their father. p. 194"It was if, in the eleven years I had been gone, a terrible truth had disquieted the city of my childhood." p. 195
This novel is narrated by Nuri el-Alfi, a 12 year old boy from Cairo on vacation in Alexandria in the early 1970s with his father Kamal, a ex-minister who has fallen out of favor with the current Egyptian government and is engaged in dissident activities against it. Nuri's mother has recently and unexpectedly died, and he and his father struggle to redefine their relationship in the absence of the woman that both loved deeply. While on a beach, Nuri sees a beautiful woman in a yellow bikini who is trying to extract a splinter from her foot. She is gratified when he is able to remove it, and as she walks toward her hotel, Nuri and Kamal follow her with their eyes, in a mixture of admiration and desire. Kamal soon makes the acquaintance of Mona, who is midway in age between Nuri and Kamal. She is of Egyptian descent, but grew up and attended university in London. After a short courtship, Kamal and Mona are married, and she moves into the apartment that Kamal and Nuri share. Nuri continues to be entranced by Mona, who relishes the attention that he pays to her. Kamal becomes aware of Nuri's affection toward Mona, and decides to send him to an English boarding school.Two years later the family decides to take a Christmas holiday in Switzerland. Kamal arranges for Nuri and Mona to meet at a hotel in Montreux, where he will join them later. Days pass, but neither receive any calls or information from Kamal until Mona learns of his kidnapping from the home of a woman in Geneva. The two travel there immediately, but they receive little information about the crime, or the relationship between the woman and Kamal.As the investigation continues into Kamal's kidnapping, Nuri continues his studies in England, while Mona lives alone in Cairo. The tension created by Kamal's disappearance and his mysterious prior life, combined with the attraction that Kamal and Mona share for each other, deeply affect both of them and alters their relationship with each other.<i>Anatomy of a Disappearance</i> is a beautifully constructed novel which was a pleasure to read. However, the story had far less impact on me than I would have expected. Nuri's expressed desire to uncover what happened to his father was not matched by his actions, as he passively accepted lies and half truths about Kamal, his dissident activities, the events that led to his kidnapping, and the woman in Geneva. In addition, the characters and motivations of Mona and Kamal remained a mystery throughout the book, and I was left unsatisfied and unmoved at its completion. This wasn't a bad read, but it is a book that will have no impact on me, unlike Matar's excellent debut novel <i>In the Country of Men</i>.
Is it possible to be enthralled by the writing and yet left wanting by the story of a book? Of course it is - and that's what happened for me with Anatomy of a Disappearance. The story centers around Nuri, who is twelve years old when his mother dies. Within a year, his father has remarried a younger woman, Mona. Nuri has complicated feelings about that, at least partially related to his jealousy of his father because of his own crush on Mona. Everything changes, though, when Nuri's father is abducted while they are on vacation in Geneva. The circumstances surrounding the abduction - where he was taken from and why he was there, why he was taken, what happens now - are all part of what Nuri wants to know. However, Nuri is still just a kid attending boarding school in England and is limited in how he can follow up on those mysteries. Also limiting him is the tendency of everyone around him to avoid his questions, or answer with half-truths. Reading this book is a sensual experience. Descriptions abound of small details: the quality of light, sounds, smells. Nuri is a keen observer of all those things, but he doesn't quite understand people, even by the end of the book, by which time he is twenty-four. I wanted more resolution on some threads but realize that the book's scope is the aftermath of the disappearance, and often in real life we don't get all the answers we want. Nuri's experience is defined by the fact that he's only left with the space his father should have filled and only able to examine the edges of his father's existence. Nevertheless, while I enjoyed the experience of reading the book, I can't say I felt satisfied by it.Recommended for: people who enjoy beautiful writing, orphans, people who went to boarding school.Quote: "So old and persistent did Mother's unhappiness seem that I had never stopped to ask its true cause. Nothing is more acceptable than that which we are born into."
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