A Libyan love affair

  • Themes: Books, Culture

Hisham Matar's latest novel is a spellbinding tale of love, loss and exile from his native Libya.

Sunset over Tripoli.
Sunset over Tripoli. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

My Friends, Hisham Matar, Viking, £18.99

There’s a scene so lovely in Hisham Matar’s A Month In Siena that I think of it often, almost as though it is not one of Matar’s memories but one of my own. His wife Diana is lying in his lap. They’re in a garden in Rome. Matar is content not knowing what’s going on in his wife’s head, but is also overcome by a desire to be ‘inked by her’, to escape his own thoughts by submerging himself in those of another person. ‘Only with love and art’ does this happen, he reflects – only with books or lovers is one ‘let into another’s perspective’. He strains for aloneness, time to write; but when they part, ‘misses her immediately’.

Matar’s new novel, My Friends, is also a book of omniverts – of struggles between solitude, and as its winding first sentence outlines, curiosity at ‘what is contained’ in a loved one’s chest. As with Siena, it also begins with parting. Our narrator Khaled sees off his old friend Hosam at St Pancras station, then decides to take the long way home to Shepherd’s Bush, narrating, as he goes, the story of his triangular friendship with Hosam and Mustafa, the three of them Libyans in exile. We learn that Khaled left Benghazi 32 years ago to study English at Edinburgh and has remained in the UK since.

Each landmark – Regent’s Park, The French House in Soho – prompts a new memory, but it’s at St James’ Square where Khaled ‘finds himself willingly’ tonight. Here, he attended an anti-Gaddafi demonstration as a student; here, ‘the place from which everything unravelled’, he and Mustafa were among those shot.

All threads of the story lead back to this incident. It is the before and after of Khaled’s life: the friends are given false identities and cannot return to Libya while Gaddafi is still in power. In a realisation so simple it somehow carries more pain, Khaled reflects: ‘Benghazi was the one place I longed for,’ and yet, ‘it was also the place I most feared to return.’

Matar has written strikingly of loss and exile before. His Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir The Return (2016) documented his search and subsequent grief for his father, Jaballa, who was kidnapped by Gaddafi’s government in 1990 and never seen again. Like his father, Matar has a poet’s sensibility: in one of many exquisite images, grief is ‘as heavy as a child sitting on [his] chest’. Though in My Friends Matar does not draw explicitly on this absence as in other novels (particularly Anatomy of a Disappearance), the book still thrums with the same questions. ‘Was it possible to live a happy life away from home, without one’s family?’, Khaled despairs. Did his friends ‘know of anyone who had done it?’

Here lies the central tenet of My Friends: belonging, its brief appearances and elusiveness. Khaled finds it, beautifully, in various iterations of the title: in his kindly English teacher at Edinburgh, Professor Walbrook; in the smart and witty Rana; in Mustafa, with whom he now ‘shares a complicated intimacy of two who have survived a terrible fate’. For most of the novel, Khaled only knows the mysterious Hosam through one of his short stories, which he hears on the radio as a teenager. Their eventual meeting is so delayed and fortuitous it’s amazing Matar pulls it off at all, but he does, and with feeling: the two bond over their love for ‘the great march’ of literature; Conrad, Naipaul, Stevenson. In books, Khaled finds further belonging; in one, ‘I quietened my nerves.’

And how perceptively Matar writes about friendship. When Mustafa pulls aside Khaled to ‘express his passion’ for their bond – or else to give a ‘lavish critique’ of their other friends – I thought of possessive friendships of girls at school, their flattery and suffocation. When Hosam and Khaled visit each other after years, speaking ‘in the dark till one of us fell asleep’, I missed my own confidants, each also in their different cities. I admired Khaled, for remaining at a slight remove, then admired Matar, for making him human (he goes ‘delirious with confusion and jealousy’ when excluded). The brilliance of first-person narration means we don’t even see Khaled’s self-absorption until much later in the novel. Calling his partner Hannah, he says: ‘Just thought of you, that’s all.’ ‘Good,’ she replies tightly. ‘You ought to do that more often.’

Politics keeps its physical distance until the revolution. Are their London roots strong enough? Mustafa, the most radical of them all, leaves to fight; Hosam, after a long period of obsessiveness and fear, follows. ‘Reluctant Khaled’ dithers, addicted to the news, refusing at the school he teaches to do a presentation on the Arab Spring (‘I don’t know much about politics’, he lies). His passivity might frustrate some readers, but there’s something braver in choosing ‘the life I have made for myself here, that is held together by a delicate balance’. And his reluctance is part of the psychological twists and turns that exile imposes: a sentence later, he thinks, ‘But I would abandon [my life] to go back.’

This is Matar’s most curious achievement: a novel that keeps drawing itself, like a magician’s string of endless handkerchiefs, from its narrative voice. Fat, meandering sentences follow shorter ones, time loosened then compressed. Khaled’s thought-pattern is apt for London in its alleyways and ‘certain turns’, ‘a muscle tightening all around’. Professor Walbrook believes that within ‘the sounds and rhythms of a writer’s sentences, there lies the inner logic of a person’, and ‘logic’ feels right for our narrator, who is often philosophising. His is the kind of thought that the novelist Javier Marías called ‘literary thinking’: ‘that which takes place only in literature – the things you never think of or hit upon unless you are writing fiction’. How else to hit upon this mass of feeling, after a kiss:

I did not know that joy could be so painful. That night I could hardly sleep from it. You can have any life you want, I told myself. Any place could be your favourite place too.

The end of the novel takes a strange, unpredictable turn. Hosam begins writing Khaled long emails, a device that feels odd until we realise it’s a clever return to how they first met – when Hosam was Khaled’s radio ‘medium’, ‘interpreting the world’. He recounts the fighting, the almost Shakespearean death of Gaddafi, and most beautifully of all, a long scene where his wife-to-be describes to a dinner party her ‘ideal man’. ‘I want him to help me with my own mind’, she begins, quiet at first, then gaining momentum. ‘I want him to be bookish, wise, cunning, and exemplary. I want him to be a good storyteller, and always on my side.’ My Friends is all of these things. What gratitude I felt then, reading it.


Lucy Thynne