Review – Hisham Matar’s The Return

the return coverSit up and take note if you were an avid follower of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This Pulitzer Prize-winning book is a factual, masterfully penned memoir that provides insights into the pain of not knowing the whereabouts of an incarcerated loved one, dead or alive. It is introspective without being indulgent, gradually revealing the author’s anger at his adopted Britain’s complicity with the Qadaffi regime in Libya.

Qadaffi deposed King Idris in 1969. Hisham’s father, Jaballa, was a successful businessman who used his wealth to support the Libyan resistance army. The family had been in exile in Cairo for six years when his parents sent him to school in London at the age of fifteen in 1985. In 1990 Jaballa was kidnapped from his Cairo flat and taken to the notorious Abu Salim jail in Tripoli. His family’s last news of him is that he was removed from his cell in 1996 to an unknown destination or fate.

The title of the book refers to Hisham’s visit to Libya in 2012 with his wife and mother. It is the first time he is returning, at the age of 42, to the country which was neither his birthplace nor his childhood home for any length of time. He is surprised at the welcome he receives and the strong warmth of the bonds he feels with people he hardly recalls.

It appears that Hisham studied architecture in London in the early ’90s. There is a hidden gem in this book for lovers of African art deco architecture, in the form of a description of the seafront of the Libyan town of Benghazi and a short history of the Italian architect Guido Ferrazza, who designed whole tracts of Benghazi, Tripoli, Asmara, Harrar and Addis Ababa.

Described by Colm Toibin as a meditation on grief and loss, this quiet memoir underscores the huge significance of closure for the families of the disappeared.

Jenny Whitehead, for Kalk Bay Books

Review – Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal

If ever I had doubts about what it means to “devour a book” or “savour a story”, they’re gone. I’ve done it. I devoured the delicious and savoury latest offering from Yann Martel, the Man Booker Prize-winning author of Life of Pi.

Be warned, however, The High Mountains of Portugal is no free lunch. The novel is structured, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in parts that are set in very different windows of time and space, linked by quite tenuous but symbolic icons and events. Martel makes us sing for our supper.

We’re rewarded only after the hard work in the initial – shall we say ‘appetite-building’? – parts. The human-to-human and human-to-mechanical-beast relationships that we encounter here are dense and complex. By comparison, the protagonist’s relationship with his cohabiting partner in the end story is a breath of fresh air and a delight. It offers the same curious but straightforward tensions and affirmations that we witnessed with Pi and Richard Parker in the boat.
It is telling that Martel, a Canadian, was born in Spain. He shares with Saramago (The Cave) the gift of taking us along to accept a condition, otherwise unbelievable, on its figurative merits. He shares with Mitchell, Jim Crace and Tim Winton the ability to create what I propose are best described as “literary ecosystems” because human behaviour is so perfectly blended with their landscapes.

I was so enamoured by the end of this book that I tried re-reading parts, thinking that perhaps it could be a circular story that one could dip into at any point. But Martel knows his craft; best you start at the beginning and don’t give up until you can’t.

Jenny Whitehead, for Kalk Bay Books