The Taser's Edge

Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar

There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table. There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places. Everything and everyone, existence itself, has become an evocation, a possibility for resemblance. Perhaps this is what is meant by that brief and now almost archaic word: elegy.

That’s the opening paragraph of Anatomy of a Disappearance. Good writers go their whole lives without writing sentences like those. Hisham Matar wrote a novel-full (at least one, as I haven’t yet read his In the Country of Men).

When I first heard about this book, it was being spun as a literary mystery novel, which is dead wrong. A different author might have written that 700-page political thriller, but this is a dream and a meditation on the question raised in that opening paragraph:

What does it mean to live when your whole life is an elegy for a missing man, one whom you might never really have known?

It’s not a question with which intense wrestling accomplishes more than sweat and injury. But the “answer” seems to be that if your life is an elegy, then you live, and that is your answer. And if you’re a writer, you write. In Anatomy of a Disappearance, narrator Nuri el-Alfi’s father is a wealthy political dissident who is kidnapped while abroad in Switzerland. The book’s author’s own father was an anti-Gaddafi activist who disappeared from Cairo in 1990, apparently by pro-Gaddafi forces. The narrator tries to live, and the author writes.

While it’s tempting to think that there must be a close correlation between this novel’s protagonist and its author, that’s misleading. I know this because not every survivor of a terrible crime can write. Read this book. It’s what fiction is meant to be.

As for me, I’ve already reserved Matar’s first novel from the library.