‘We are living in the century of fear’: Hisham Matar on why we need books | Hisham Matar

‘We are living in the century of fear’: Hisham Matar on why we need books | Hisham Matar

Something happens to us around the age of five, six or seven, when our sense of ourself contracts, becomes more specific, and we realise that besides being part of a family and a society, there is something in us that belongs to us alone.

This for me happened in Tripoli, by the Libyan Mediterranean Sea. I remember how consoling and eventful living beside it was; how it changed, and how the companionship of its alterations accompanied me. Our city changed. People got married and divorced. But neither births nor deaths altered it. The sea was untouched. Constant in its variety. Decadent in its obliviousness.

Part of the wonder I felt was that the waters I swam in, that filled my ears and mouth and open eyes, were the same waters that touched distant shores, places such as Cyprus and Crete, Barcelona and Sanremo, Gaza and Marseille. Or nearby places, such as Alexandria, which, for my family, held mythical status. It was where my maternal grandmother was born and both sides of my family lived for a time when, after resisting Benito Mussolini’s occupation, they moved to neighbouring Egypt. Such proximities filled me with wonder, but also the practical knowledge that the world existed all at once: that then was now, and there was here, and that all divisions, both of time and space, were, perhaps like all declarations of belonging, approximate.

Books, regardless of their subject, are often motored by a concern with bridging the distances, with disparate situations, with difference, with dissimilar states of being, with characters who stand poles apart, men and women who, in their solitary hours, are running against their own hearts.

“What shall Cordelia do?” Cordelia asks herself in King Lear. And the answer that comes to her comes as quickly and effortlessly as a natural event: “Love, and be silent.” It’s a simple and yet complicated verdict. There is a wellspring of confidence required in order to love and be loved. A confidence that verges on faith. A faith in correspondence, in the simple fact that what we feel most deeply does not need to be uttered. In fact, this sort of faith worries about utterance, is suspicious of it, of the damage that can be caused by spelling it out. And yet, how can we truly know another person, and how might we make ourselves known to them, if words alone are not enough?

Such fear of correspondence, and the need for it too, is literature’s worry. Given that books are made up of words, it is a paradox that one of their abiding concerns is the unsaid and the unsayable. Literature has a passion for silence. It trusts in the vaguest, most subtly made connection. The best stories do this; they bring together seemingly isolated elements and expose the natural affinities between them. This is why one way to define a library is as a collection of surprising bonds, of coincidental attachments, an amalgamation of seemingly disparate points.

That peculiar mixture of excitement and fear, of melancholy and joy, of boredom and wonder, which I felt as a child standing beside the sea, is strangely analogous to the feeling I get on walking into a good library. Both offer the potential of liberal travel, of surprising encounters, of aimlessness and the danger of drowning, the temptation of being lost as well as the fear of being lost. This is why the banning of books, and the silencing or dismissing of certain voices – as happened only recently in Frankfurt, for example, when an award ceremony celebrating the Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli was cancelled on the grounds of the author’s nationality – offends in us an essential human need and freedom.

Hisham Matar.
Hisham Matar. Photograph: Awakening/Getty Images

Our age fears books. It is worried about ungovernable expression. It often mistakes the author for the authority on her work, when only the work is the true authority on itself. Anyone who has written an honest line knows this. Added to this is that other, much older fear, which power everywhere has often felt towards books: that they risk disrupting the official narrative, make those whom we have decided are fundamentally different from ourselves vivid, present and equal.

This is why the violence of war, of death, occupation and displacement, is invested in what sort of libraries we end up with. War wants to extend its murderous tentacles into our bookshelves: the public and private ones, the physical and those we carry within us.

In the first half of the 20th century, Albert Camus attempted to lay a claim on his time, to define it: “The 17th century,” he wrote, “was the century of mathematics; the 18th of the physical sciences; the 19th of biology. Our century, the 20th, is the century of fear.”

If we were to attempt to update that statement, we might still call ours, the 21st, the century of fear, but also of fragmentation. Very few of us, even those who have lived where they were born, feel connected to a sense of community. But I also mean fragmentation in the wider sense, from being connected to universalist principles of justice and human rights, for example. To conduct ourselves as though we truly believed that human life, no matter where, was equally precious, and not to tailor our outrage depending on the nationality or race of the victim.

War is horrific for all the reasons that we know it to be, but it is also horrific because it is invested in such corruptions. The opposite of war is not peace – peace is merely its absence; the opposite of war is cooperation. And no work of literature can function without its cooperative parts.

Although neither question is easy to answer, most people ask how a book starts, at which point did you decide to write it. Few ever ask how it ended, how you knew when it was finished. The poet Marianne Moore worried about the second question. How was she to know that she had enough poems for her book? She shared her doubts with her editor, TS Eliot, who was then publisher at Faber. In a letter dated 31 January 1934, Eliot replied: “The point at which one has ‘enough’ for a book (of verse) is not a quantitative matter alone … One only has not enough, when one feels that the poems written require the cooperation of certain poems not yet written, in order to be themselves quite.”

This inner cooperation of the various parts that make up a work of literature – so it can be itself quite – is mirrored large in a library. Which is to say, as well as everything else that a library is, it is also a metaphor for a collaborative society. An excellent library is our most diverse and divergent structure of human knowledge, the most accepting of opposites, the most enthusiastic for the accidental as well as the curated points of contact, the most promiscuously curious and hungry. It seeks to fulfil our appetites, but is also in itself evidence of the breadth of our hope and inquiry.

My Friends by Hisham Matar is published by Penguin (£18.99) on 11 January. To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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