When Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, the British-Libyan novelist Hisham Matar hoped he would finally discover the truth about his father. Jaballa Matar was a leading Libyan opposition figure living in Egypt, when in 1990 he was kidnapped and imprisoned in Tripoli. At the time Hisham was 20 years old and exiled in England. The family received smuggled letters and even a tape recording from Jaballa, but after a mass execution in the prison in 1996, there was silence. Most likely, Jaballa was killed then, but Hisham could never be sure.
The Return is a beautifully written account of Matar’s pained search. It is also an account of what dictatorship has done to Libya, a small country where few hands are clean. Matar, a dreamy writer whose first novel In the Country of Men was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was forced by circumstance into campaigning for his father’s release, writing letters, giving interviews, talking to politicians.
Most bizarrely, he meets Gaddafi’s son Saif in London. Saif praises Matar’s writing, saying if he returns to Libya he will be showered with literary prizes. Though unwilling to be coopted, Matar is sensitive enough to see that Saif is also coping with the legacy of his charismatic father.
Promised the truth at every turn, he never finds it. Sometimes, he writes, he would prefer to be imprisoned with his father—or even dead.“Guilt is exile’s eternal companion,” he says. Written with hard-won clarity and unsentimental intelligence, The Return stands comparison with the best literature of exile.