The Return, which won a Pulitzer Prize, is an unsettling memoir of a son’s unassuageable grief for a missing parent. With its nightmarish quality, it feels like a book-length nervous breakdown. There is nothing ironic or “Western” about Matar’s reverence for his patrician father. He exalts him, mourns him, longs for his eloquent voice.
In his quest for justice, Matar publishes, agitates, travels the world, pursues any lead and ends up in the House of Lords gallery where his supporters are patronised by the British government, which had shamefully accommodated the Gaddafi regime under Tony Blair.
In the end, despite rumours and furphies, it seems clear that Jabbala Matar was among the 1270 political prisoners who were murdered in the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli in 1996. With a kind of exhausted feeling, his son writes, “There is shame in not knowing where your father is, shame in not being able to stop searching for him and shame also in wanting to stop searching for him”.
A Month in Siena is a clear coda to The Return. There is nothing idle or sybaritic about this Tuscan sojourn. Matar – rather ghost-like – reminds us of a traveller from another epoch. Everything is loaded; everything connects. He tells us that he became “mysteriously fascinated” by the medieval Sienese School of art while a university student in London in 1990. “I had lost my father that year.”
In Siena he hastens to study paintings by Simone Martini, the Lorenzetti brothers and Giovanni di Paolo. For him “they articulate a feeling of hope”. Novelly he opines that “cities are there in part to render us more intelligent and more intelligible to each other” – not perhaps a universal view among Western tourists.
He lingers over Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s phenomenal Allegory of Good Government in the Palazzo Pubblico. The artistic amateur and autodidact almost wills the paintings to instruct him. When his photographer wife Diana returns to London, we reach the essence of the book. “Here was my solitude, as quick and thick and heavy as always.”
As with The Return, the structure is complex, moving backwards and forwards in time. This is no conventional guidebook: Matar doesn’t even mention panforte or restaurants. His Siena is “as intimate as a locket … and yet as complex as a maze”. It reminds us of those cities where we become disoriented in spite of our rational selves, our prudent maps.
Conscious of Italy’s 35-year colonisation of Libya, Matar meets other expatriates and marvels at “death’s endless appetite”. He realises that he has come to Siena not just for the art but also to grieve alone – “to work out how I might continue from here” (the key to all our wanderings perhaps).
Matar’s past-hauntedness will never leave him, we suspect. And yet one day, lying in the Campo, he feels “the warmth of the ground seeping into my back”. Again he sees his beloved father’s face, “before his captivity, when he was well and free”. He recalls a time when his father – suave, multi-lingual, immensely well-travelled – teased him by addressing him in impenetrable Italian.
Now, surprised by joy, the son is in Siena, a city he can imagine living in forever. “I felt I had exceeded him, that the pupil had exceeded his teacher.”
Peter Rose is editor of Australian Book Review.