Hisham Matar’s novel, Anatomy of a Disappearance is a cool and elegant appraisal of loss, whose surface lucidity does not conceal the dark enigmas on which it is based. Nuri is twelve, the cosseted son of a rich and important dissident living in exile in Cairo, when his mother dies. He is old enough to feel his loss, but too young to understand the circumstances of his mother’s death. Left alone with his aloof father, the two holiday in Alexandria, where Nuri develops a powerful adolescent crush on a woman in a bright yellow bathing suit. It’s an oedipal nightmare when his father steps in and marries Mona, bringing her back to Cairo as Nuri’s new, eroticised stepmother. As if in recognition of his role as potential competitor, Nuri is soon packed off to a fancy boarding school in England, where he yearns obsessively for Mona, who can only be bothered to reply with brief impersonal postcards to his long letters. When the Christmas holidays finally arrive, the family plan to reunite in Switzerland and Nuri can’t wait for the opportunity to spend a couple of days alone with Mona before his father arrives. And then, his father never turns up, and the first the two learn of his disappearance is a brief news item in the Geneva newspaper describing how he was taken hostage by masked intruders from another woman’s bed. The rest of the story concerns Nuri’s long, frustrating quest for knowledge and understanding of this event as he grows up in its shadow.
The opening lines of the narrative: ‘There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest’, warn the reader that this is going to be a novel primarily concerned with missing fathers. But equally important are the rehearsals of loss that precede it, and the layers of guilt and uncertainty that they lay down. We are given just enough information about Nuri’s mother to realise she is already partly lost to some kind of melancholy. But this is made less painful by the presence of Naima, the family housekeeper who has been a member of the household since Nuri’s birth and who loves him with a spoiling, cherishing adoration. The replacement of Nuri’s mother with Mona seems to offer an excitement fraught with serious danger, a love in which far more is invested for Nuri than the tender concern of Naima or the gentle acceptance of his distant mother. But by crossing an invisible line of transgression, Nuri seems to invite a series of emotional body blows. He is delivered into the wrong part of his father’s fate, as he, too, is sent into exile in a foreign land. And then when he ends up alone with Mona, he is forced to realise he should have been more careful what he wished for.
This is a curious, highly readable narrative that manages to make a coherent whole out of disparate elements: part erudite thriller, part coming-of-age story, part rewriting of the Oedipus myth. The uniting thread is Nuri’s voice, which is perfectly judged, powerful but understated. There is also an ongoing implicit concern with what happens to children who do not receive sufficient parenting, who are launched, unformed, into an adult world. This is a beautiful, evocative story, but it never fails to convey the disquieting lack of depth that children suffer when they are cast adrift. Parenting forms the deep bedrock of personality, at the anchoring level of belief and conviction. This can be difficult to negotiate in its way, but without it, the whole structure of identity is fragile. From the moment he enters his posh boarding school, Nuri spirals into ever greater isolation, showing that the only genuine privilege we have in life is to know we are loved and safe.
Once I’d finished this book, I found out that the author’s situation was uncannily close to that of his young narrator. Hisham Matar’s father was a leading dissident against Gaddafi’s regime who was abducted by Egyptian secret service agents in 1990. At the time, Matar was 20, and when he wrote this novel, he still did not know what had happened to his father. Knowing this lent a further degree of poignancy to an already moving tale.