Hisham Matar: ‘We all go through a lot. I’m wary of having “material”’ | Hisham Matar

Hisham Matar: ‘We all go through a lot. I’m wary of having “material”’ | Hisham Matar

Hisham Matar, 53, was born in New York to Libyan parents and raised in Tripoli, Cairo and London, the place he has lived most since his mid-teens. His two previous novels, In the Country of Men (shortlisted for the 2006 Booker) and Anatomy of a Disappearance, are both narrated by boys whose father is abducted – an experience that is the basis of Matar’s Pulitzer-winning memoir The Return (2016), about the political imprisonment and probable murder of his own father, who opposed Muammar Gaddafi. In Matar’s new book, My Friends, a Libyan exile takes a walk across London while talking us through his youth and middle age, from his 80s student days to Gaddafi’s fall in 2011. For Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vásquez, it’s Matar’s “most political novel, but also an intimate meditation on friendship and love and everything in between”.

How did My Friends begin?
Unusually slowly. Years ago, when I was in Paris writing In the Country of Men, I wrote on the back of an envelope a very simple two-line idea for a book about three male friends who end up in different places. I started thinking about it more in 2011 and 2012 when I was surrounded by friends who were very involved in the Arab spring, not only in Libya but in Egypt and Tunisia. It was revealing to me to see that how we behave in such situations may have less to do with political conviction than with personal temperament. I wanted to explore that idea in a novel but I needed time and [emotional] distance [from those events]; back then I couldn’t have written a scene like the one the book has about the killing of Gaddafi.

Had you intended to write a longer novel than usual?
No, I’ve always tried to write short books – I don’t like long books – but the scale of this one is different: 30-plus years, told across a two-hour walk. It gave me serious trouble but I worked as an architect for the first seven years of my professional life and one thing I learned was to put your drawings up on the wall if you’re stuck. I still do that with my writing. Normally it’s early on; with this, I was midway. I had 250 pages along the walls, down the corridor, into the bathroom, everywhere.

Key to the plot are the 1984 shootings at the Libyan embassy protest in London. You were 13 then – did that make it difficult to write about?
I’ve always felt close to that event; I saw it on the news, living in Cairo, and it marked me deeply. I’ve never forgotten the sight of the young masked Libyan men writhing on the tarmac. I remember hearing one of them call out for his mother. Five years later, studying in London, I became friends with that same man – for a long time I didn’t know he’d been there. Another friend [whom Matar also met later] was wounded that day. I don’t remember ever sitting them down and saying: “Tell me what it was like.” But over 35 or 40 years of knowing someone, you glean pieces of information that are more effective than a conscious account: how somebody puts on a shirt, how a certain sound might make them respond. I was anxious about making people I know feel that I was appropriating their experience, but that was where the book wanted to go. As a Libyan Londoner, you’re often thrown into questions of how those two places meet; that’s an event where they meet brutally.

Unlike your previous novels,
My Friends doesn’t involve a son’s lost father. Did publishing The Return, a memoir of your own loss, allow you to write a different kind of novel?
I think that’s true. I’ve always sensed that my literary friends and my agent and editor are quite impressed by how much material I have. It’s a word I really don’t like when it comes to literature. You know: “Hisham has a lot of material. He’s been through a lot.” I have. But we all go through a lot. I’m wary of having “material”. Experience, by Martin Amis, is foolishly anxious about that question: probably the greatest ever novel was written by Proust, a man who never left his room. The Return was partly me feeling, well, if you think I’ve got too much material, I’m just gonna put it there and get it out of the way so I can really write my novels. It was a book I needed to write: I felt like it was coming out of my veins.

Tell us what you’ve been reading lately.
Louise Glück’s poems, Winter Recipes from the Collective, are wonderful. I’ve also been reading a lot of collections of letters, I don’t know why; maybe because the lack of genuine correspondence between people [with different views] weighs so heavily in this moment we’re in. I’m enjoying the fluency and playfulness of Seamus Heaney’s letters, which came out recently. Very few people write letters now, so it’s interesting to read a collection that’s actually quite contemporary and close to our time.

A scene in The Return shows you rooting for Rangers in a 1989 match against Bayern Munich. Do you still follow them?
No, I’m a really unreliable football fan. Since childhood I’ve always had a thing for Liverpool, but if there’s a good game and one side’s playing better than the other… When England were playing Sweden in the World Cup years ago [in 2006], I remember thinking it was about time I support England and cure myself of the perverse satisfaction of watching them lose. I walk into this packed pub and order a pint. England almost score and everybody’s up on their feet; the guy behind me has his hand on my shoulder, my hand’s on the guy in front, and I’m thinking, God, this is beautiful, this is what it is to belong! A couple of pints later, I forget who I’m supporting. Sweden attack, it’s a good move and they almost score; I slap my thigh in disappointment. The whole room turns towards me… I pretended I had a spot on my thigh. Terrible!

My Friends by Hisham Matar is published by Viking (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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