Published: October 10, 2019
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Hisham Matar is the London-based Libyan author of two fine autobiographical novels, In the Country of Men, 2006, and Anatomy of a Disappearance, 2008. Both are about a boy growing up in Tripoli and Cairo, as Matar did, whose father is abducted, as Matar’s father, the Libyan activist Jaballa Matar, was, from Egypt, where he had sought refuge from Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, never to be seen again by his wife and sons. They are novels about being unable to take possession of one’s own life, burdened not just by exile but by never knowing what has become of such a deeply loved father.
In 2016, Matar published a marvellous memoir, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land In Between, about going back to Libya after Gaddafi’s overthrow, for the first time since he was a boy, still hoping to find out what happened. The quest is painfully inconclusive. “My father is both dead and alive. I do not have a grammar for him. He is in the past, present and future,” Matar wrote. The Return won many prizes, including the Folio and the Pulitzer.
A Month in Siena is a short memoir, set in the period between the completion of The Return and its publication, describing a solitary visit to the city to see its paintings — Sienese art having long been a passion of Matar’s — and, so far as he can, to recover himself and find a way forward.
Matar is a master of pellucid statement that seems simple yet is exactly right. He describes the city beautifully, saying of Il Campo, for example: “To cross it is to take part in a centuries-old choreography, one meant to remind all solitary beings that it was neither good nor possible to exist entirely alone.” He is ever sensitive to space.
He is equally eloquent about the paintings he loves, many of them reproduced in the book, one his own photograph of a tiny Angel annunciate by Sano di Pietro, painted on a wooden tray housed in the Oratorio di San Bernardino, which, he says, gives him pain in his chest, “as though I were longing for a specific person, a place or a time now forever gone”.
Yet in Siena he feels at home in time. He says he rarely feels he is where he is meant to be and free from the wish to be anywhere else. “The strange thing was that I never suffered this in Siena. Every day and for the entire month I spent there I felt myself to be in time ...Everything I experienced was happening at the pace at which it ought to happen.”
In a final chapter, he meditates on Giovanni di Paolo’s Paradise, in the Met in New York, a tiny picture imagining the reunion of those long lost to each other, in the hereafter. The painting, he says, “knows that what we wish for most, even more than paradise, is to be recognised; that regardless of how transformed and transfigured we might be by the passage, something of us might sustain and remain perceptible to those we have spent so long loving.”
This is an exquisite, deeply affecting book, one in which an experience of dislocation and loss is conveyed in prose that flows so clearly and gracefully it finds continuities and connections all the time. It is also, although Proust is not among the many artists directly cited here, profoundly Proust-ian, many sentences actually adopting his syntax, becoming themselves acts of comprehension and recovery.
A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar (Viking, £12.99) source