Matar’s two novels have both been loosely based on his father’s abduction and the experience of exile. This memoir is a meticulous account of a trip to Libya during “a precious window when justice, democracy and the rule of law were within reach”, after the 2011 revolution that overthrew Gaddafi. Benghazi, where he spent most of his stay, has been fought over for three years now, and Ajdabia, his family home, has passed several times between jihadis and one of Libya’s three governments. Faced with the anarchy of a fragmented country where a myriad of militia hold sway, some Libyans are now nostalgic for the relative stability of the Gaddafi years.
The Return is his account of that trip and it is a truly remarkable book. From the raw materials of his anger, his suffering, and his grief, Matar has built a testament to his father, his family and his country. It begins with Matar, his wife, Diana, an American-born photographer, and his mother waiting at Cairo airport for the flight to Benghazi. He is beset by last-minute misgivings. “Returning after all these years was a bad idea, I suddenly thought. My family had left in 1979, 33 years earlier. This was the chasm that divided the man from the eight-year-old boy I was then. The plane was going to cross that gulf. Surely such journeys were reckless. This one could rob me of a skill I had worked so hard to cultivate: how to live away from places and people I love.”
Mr. Matar’s account of the suffering in Libya — under Qaddafi, and now, in the violent aftermath of the revolution — reads like a microcosm of what the Middle East has experienced as the democratic hopes fostered by the Arab Spring have crashed and burned in one country after another. At the same time, “The Return” stands as a haunting memoir about one family, and one son’s Telemachus-like search for his father.