Synopses & Reviews
In the tradition of the great immigrant sagas, The Lion Seeker
brings us Isaac Helger, son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, surviving the streets of Johannesburg in the shadow of World War II
Are you a stupid or a clever?
Such is the refrain in Isaac Helgers mind as he makes his way from redheaded hooligan to searching adolescent to striving young man on the make. His mothers question haunts every choice. Are you a stupid or a clever? Will you find a way to lift your family out of Johannesburgs poor inner city, to buy a house in the suburbs, to bring your aunts and cousins from Lithuania?
Isaacs mother is a strong woman and a scarred woman; her maimed face taunts him with a past no one will discuss. As World War II approaches, then falls upon them, they hurtle toward a catastrophic reckoning. Isaac must make decisions that, at first, only seem to be life-or-death, then actually are.
Meanwhile, South Africas history, bound up with Europes but inflected with its own accents—Afrikaans, Zulu, Yiddish, English—begins to unravel. Isaacs vibrant, working-class, Jewish neighborhood lies near the African slums; under cover of night, the slums are razed, the residents forced off to townships. Isaacs fortune-seeking takes him to the privileged seclusion of the Johannesburg suburbs, where he will court forbidden love. It partners him with the unlucky, unsinkable Hugo Bleznick, selling miracle products to suspicious farmers. And it leads him into a feud with a grayshirt Afrikaaner who insidiously undermines him in the auto shop, where Isaac has found the only work that ever felt true. And then his mothers secret, long carefully guarded, takes them to the diamond mines, where everything is covered in a thin, metallic dust, where lions wait among desert rocks, and where Isaac will begin to learn the bittersweet reality of success bought at truly any cost.
A thrilling ride through the life of one fumbling young hero, The Lion Seeker is a glorious reinvention of the classic family and coming-of-age sagas. We are caught — hearts open and wrecked — between the urgent ambitions of a mother who knows what it takes to survive and a son straining against the responsibilities of the old world, even as he is endowed with the freedoms of the new.
"Shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, Matar's debut novel tracks the effects of Libyan strongman Khadafy's 1969 September revolution on the el-Dawani family, as seen by nine-year-old Suleiman, who narrates as an adult. Living in Tripoli 10 years after the revolution with his parents and spending lazy summer days with his best friend, Kareem, Suleiman has his world turned upside down when the secret policelike Revolutionary Committee puts the family in its sightsthough Suleiman does not know it, his father has spoken against the regime and is a clandestine agitatoralong with families in the neighborhood. When Kareem's father is arrested as a traitor, Suleiman's own father appears to be next. The ensuing brutality resonates beyond the bloody events themselves to a brutalizing of heart and mind for all concerned. Matar renders it brilliantly, as well as zeroing in on the regime's reign of terror itself: mock trials, televised executions, neighbors informing on friends, persecution mania in those remaining. By the end, Suleiman's father must either renounce the cause or die for it, and Suleiman faces the aftermath of conflicts (including one with Kareem) that have left no one untouched. Suleiman's bewilderment speaks volumes. Matar wrests beauty from searing dread and loss." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Matar tells a gripping and shocking tale that illuminates the personal facet of a national nightmare." Booklist
"[A] masterful debut novel....In the Country of Men is a small gem of a book that packs an emotional wallop." Denver Post
"Readers of this remarkable novel will learn a little about Libya's political history and a lot about how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. They will also be haunted by Suleiman, his fate and his eventual awakening to the complexities of adult relationships." Seattle Times
"[S]tunning....In the Country of Men is about the treacheries of the human heart. In this textured novel, Matar shows how well he can sing with the memory of the sword still keen." Kansas City Star
"[An] intriguing debut....A tender-hearted account, winning in its simplicity, of a childhood infected too soon by the darkness of adults." Kirkus Reviews
"Most memorable in this beautifully written book is the relationship between Suleiman and his young mother....Matar portrays their relationship in intimate, realistic, and heartbreaking scenes. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Matar is a careful, controlled writer. His restraint the spaces and the light between his words make reading his work a physical as well as an emotional experience." Los Angeles Times
"[A] knockout emotionally wrenching and gorgeously written. It is not primarily a political novel; it's about the relationships in one family and about a boy struggling to make sense of events, both public and private, that he has been exposed to far too soon....If In the Country of Men
proves to be merely a promise of what Hisham Matar can do, London's literary lights had better watch their backs." Yvonne Zipp, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire CSM review
Libya, 1979. Nine-year-old Suleiman's days are circumscribed by the narrow rituals of childhood: outings to the ruins surrounding Tripoli, games with friends played under the burning sun, exotic gifts from his father's constant business trips abroad. But his nights have come to revolve around his mother's increasingly disturbing bedside stories full of old family bitterness. And then one day Suleiman sees his father across the square of a busy marketplace, his face wrapped in a pair of dark sunglasses. Wasn't he supposed to be away on business yet again? Why is he going into that strange building with the green shutters? Why did he lie?
Suleiman is soon caught up in a world he cannot hope to understand; where the sound of the telephone ringing becomes a portent of grave danger; where his mother frantically burns his father's cherished books; where a stranger full of sinister questions sits outside in a parked car all day; where his best friend's father can disappear overnight, next to be seen publicly interrogated on state television.
In the Country of Men is a stunning depiction of a child confronted with the private fallout of a public nightmare. But above all, it is a debut of rare insight and literary grace.
In 1979 Libya, nine-year-old Suleiman endures his mother's increasingly disturbing bedside stories full of old family bitterness. His father is away on business (again), and Suleiman is soon caught up in a world he cannot hope to understand in this novel that offers a stunning depiction of a child confronted with the private fallout of a public nightmare.
In the tradition of the great immigrant sagas, The Lion Seeker brings us Isaac Helger, son of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, surviving the streets of Johannesburg in the shadow of World War II
About the Author
Hisham Matar was born in New York. He spent his childhood in America with his Libyan parents while his father was working for the Libyan delegation to the U.N. He has written poetry, experimented in theatre, and began writing his first novel, In The Country Of Men, in early 2000.
Reading Group Guide
Taking us to a time and place rarely glimpsed in fiction, Hisham Matars In the Country of Men
captures life in Libya in the wake of Muammar al-Qaddafis revolution. Through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy named Suleiman, we watch a family struggle for survival in a climate of deadly political suspicion. Against a backdrop of innocent childhood rituals—playing games with his best friends, learning his countrys history on visits to the ruins surrounding Tripoli—Suleiman is also awakened to dangers he cannot comprehend. When his father is brutally interrogated and his best friends father disappears, Suleiman arrives at a crossroads that will shatter his understanding of home and homelands.
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading of In the Country of Men. We hope they will enrich your experience of this powerful novel.
1. What is the effect of reading about this episode in history through a childs point of view? What clarity does it bring? In what ways do a childs impulses muddy the truth?
2. What does Suleiman learn about the roles of men and women as his mother continually reminds him of her arranged marriage? How have his impressions of gender been shaped by this knowledge? What determines whether she feels safe or victimized in her marriage?
3. How would you characterize Muammar al-Qaddafis political rhetoric as it is captured in the novel? How was he able to overthrow a monarch without offering any promise of democracy? What makes fiction an ideal format for depicting these headlines?
4. How does Suleiman perceive his mothers alcoholism? What distinctions exist between experiencing this addiction in the West and facing it in a locale where religious law forbids drinking?
5. Discuss the title of the novel: In the Country of Men. Do the women in Suleimans life have any true power, and if so, from where is it derived? What does he come to understand about the power hierarchies of Libyan men, and the reasons his father lost his social rank?
6. What had you previously known about Muammar al-Qaddafi and the effects of Italian colonization on Libya? As a supplement to your reading of In the Country of Men, discuss articles tracing Qaddafis unusual story, from being suspected of involvement in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, to his recent denunciation of the 9/11 terrorists and the U.S. State Departments May 2006 removal of Libya from a list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Could the novels characters ever have predicted such an outcome?
7. What does the story of Moosas useless Polish tires (chapter seven) indicate about economics and entrepreneurship at that time? How did the citizens economic power crumble so swiftly, to the point that they were swindled out of their savings through the currency scheme described in chapter twenty-four?
8. Did Suleimans perception of Bahloul change between his early memories (particularly in chapter ten) to the incident when Bahloul nearly drowned, just before Suleimans departure for Cairo?
9. In chapter ten, what persuasive tools does Sharief use to win the cooperation of children? What is Suleimans understanding of the events he sees on television, culminating in the execution of Ustath Rashid? When is he able to reconcile the innocent images of noble men—such as the small gifts he would receive after his father traveled for business—with the horrific ones that dominate his mind in the novels later chapters?
10. What were your impressions of Suleimans place within his circle of friends? What was it like to see Osama used as an ordinary name for an ordinary little boy? How had Suleimans feelings toward his friends changed when he was reunited with them years later?
11. How would you respond to the “what-if” thoughts Suleiman expresses toward the end of chapter twenty-four? What might have become of him, of his father, of his beloved Siham, if he had never emigrated?
12. Discuss the notion of living as an expatriate. How did Suleiman cope with the knowledge that he could not safely go home again? How do such circumstances affect identity and sense of self?
13. How did Suleimans religious training shape his character and his understanding of the world?
14. How has Suleimans opinion of his mother changed by the time he reaches the novels closing scenes?
15. Discuss the notion of storytelling woven throughout the book. How are the characters influenced by Scheherazade and A Thousand and One Nights? How would you characterize the storytelling style of Suleimans mother? How does a book—Babas lone, dangerous tome saved from the fire—drive the plot of Hisham Matars book?
In the Country of Men loosely mirrors some of the events that have taken place in your life. Given this fact, when and how did the idea of writing it begin to take shape?
When I first began writing In the Country of Men all I had was the voice of the protagonist. He intrigued me and my desire to want to know him and his world became almost compulsive. It is by far much more interesting and entertaining to write and read work that is a product of the imagination rather than a list of remembered events. Some works of fiction read like lists, events that have happened and therefore hold little surprise for the author, who ought to be constantly on his toes for the next possibility. This is why I had no interest in writing an autobiographical account of my childhood.
Most of the main characters are men, aside from perhaps the novel’s most luminous figure, Suleiman’s mother. Explain the significance behind the book’s title and how you came to choose it.
The book revolves around the complex and intense relationship between the protagonist and his young mother. The two often seem guests in a world decided and shaped by men.
Despite her “illness” and supposed inferiority, Suleiman’s mother is actually the rock of the family and the one who must keep it afloat while her husband is detained. What inspired you to create such a complex character? Can we as readers learn something from her actions?
She is certainly a paradox. I haven't met two people who agree on her. Some say she is a heroic and courageous figure, others claim she is a less than capable mother. A character happens through the writing. The process is not too unlike dancing with a stranger in the dark: you take your chances. You follow their lead. And when the moment is right, when you have gathered enough courage and audacity, you attempt to whisper a name into their ear. Sometimes they respond. Nothing in my work is written with the intention to instruct or teach.
Despite the fact that he cares deeply for them, Suleiman’s father risks the lives of his wife and son by becoming active in the political underground—essentially putting politics above his family. Suleiman’s mother does quite the opposite. At one point, she appeals to her neighbor (a government official) in order to secure her husband’s freedom and her son’s safety. Might you elaborate on this contrast?
I don't know to what degree I ought to engage in judging the actions of my characters, let alone elaborating on them. I am interested in their existence, in their being—what we call life—and so see no need to measure their actions morally or otherwise.
Part of what makes In the Country of Men so fascinating is that it’s written from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy, the age you were when you left Libya. How does Suleiman’s naiveté and struggle to understand what’s going on around him shape the flow and impact of his story?
Making Suleiman the same age as I was when I had left Libya helped me remember that time in Libya. Children live with an intensity most adults take for granted. The present to them is all. It makes perfect sense, for instance, why a child ought to be devastated when his toy breaks. The lack of hindsight makes them both reckless and wary. In some ways, childhood is a sort of mystical experience; perhaps the most refined one we are likely to ever experience.
After winning three games in a row against Kareem in front of the other neighborhood kids, Suleiman turns against his friend and betrays his confidence, despite his respect and love for Kareem and the fact that Kareem had always treated him as an equal. Is this not representative of something deeply distressing about human nature—the ability to turn against each other, despite past loyalties?
I am not sure about that. The way Suleiman behaved toward his friend Kareem seemed credible; it did not seem acceptable that he ought to suffer all the pressures he suffers without being corrupted in some way.
One of the most intense and powerful scenes in your novel is, of course, the one where Ustath Rashid is executed in the National Basketball Stadium in front of a frenzied, animal-like mob, all screaming for his execution as a traitor. You write, “Something was absent in the stadium, something that could no longer be relied on.” What was that “something,” and what do you see is the reason for its absence? Isn’t this “something” absent in much of today’s world as well?
I am often mistaken for my protagonist . . . Those were Suleiman’s words. As for what I think is missing in our world today, I would say: Nothing; we have everything, but in the wrong quantities: Too much pain and suffering, and not enough of those most noble of intellectual faculties: Compassion and Tolerance.
In the last few chapters, Suleiman looks back on his life and attempts to make sense of what happened to him and how it shaped who he is as a person. Why did you choose to include this section, and what does his change in perspective say about his character and his feelings for his country?
Suleiman’s motivation for telling his story is rather unclear in the beginning. It is only toward the end that his reason for ‘recalling’ the past is gradually unveiled. He has become so far removed from the past, exiled from the time and the place of his early beginnings, and so in his telling there is the hope that he could ‘return’ if even in his mind.
Toward the end of In the Country of Men, you write, "Nationalism is as thin as a thread—perhaps that's why it's so anxiously guarded." You were born in New York City and spent your childhood in Tripoli and Cairo. Now, you live in London. Do you feel a particular affinity toward any of these places over the others? Would you ever consider moving back to Tripoli or Cairo? How does this quote relate to your choices in life?
I remember reading Dr Johnson’s famous words that went something like this, ‘Nationalism is the last hiding place for a scoundrel.’ So I decided to have Suleiman agree with Dr Johnson. I am attached in different ways to all the countries I lived in, but my attachment to Libya is much more urgent. Sometimes I wake up with it in my head. And in my writing this book I was trying to wean myself of the country I had left and haven’t been able to return to for over 28 years now. You can say I was trying to cure myself of my Libya. I failed, of course.
In what ways did your childhood lend itself to writing this novel and creating Suleiman’s voice?
A book is never written only in the time that it actually takes to write it. So, indeed, I have been thinking about these ideas, not necessarily for a work of fiction, for some time. Not so much ‘thinking’ in the hard and stern way, as I find that sort of thinking mostly unhelpful when it comes to writing, but carrying: Carrying it as faithfully as one knows how.
In the end, what made you choose to write a work of fiction rather than an autobiography?
I enjoy the pleasure of inventing characters and their circumstances on the page. They remain mysterious even after the work is complete; in some ways even more mysterious. It’s magic.
In 1990, your father, a dissident living in Cairo, was kidnapped and taken back to Tripoli where he was subsequently tortured and imprisoned. Other members of your family and friends have been tortured or killed as well. Is it true that you have not heard from your father since 1995? How did these events and this uncertainty help shape In the Country of Men?
Yes, it is true that I haven’t heard from or about Father since 1995. I don’t know to what extent this has influenced my novel. The State is forever intruding in the lives of Suleiman and his family. One of the most difficult passages to write was the return of the father after he had been tortured.
What would you like your readers to take away from their experience with In the Country of Men?
Libya is a silent and silenced country. Somewhere between the covers of my book is a Libya that speaks. But, most of all, I hope anyone who reads my novel is entertained and perhaps even nudged a little.
Do you prefer to read a specific genre of books? Might you have a few favorite books to recommend to your readers?
I am currently reading Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow, his novel in three parts.